"Racial Preferences Are Dead."

Anti-quota activist Ward Connerly on the end of affirmative action


"It has been almost a year since you called me and asked me to meet with Jerry and Ellen Cook," University of California Regent Ward Connerly wrote to fellow Regent Clair W. Burgener in 1995. "As you know, I consented to meet with them….I must tell you that there are many moments when I regret having done so."

Jerry and Ellen Cook were two citizens on a mission. Their son James, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of California at San Diego, had been accepted to Caltech's doctoral program in computer science and MIT and Harvard's combined medical school and Ph.D. program. But he had been rejected from each of the five U.C. medical schools.

Jerry, a graduate in management from MIT who has taught graduate-level statistics, and Ellen, a professor of management at the University of San Diego, told Connerly that they wondered about the chances of being accepted to Harvard and Caltech but not being accepted to a single U.C. program. Analyzing admission data gathered under public-access statutes, the couple had solved the puzzle: The U.C. medical schools were maintaining de facto quotas for minority applicants. Preferred minority students, who made up less than 10 percent of the applicant pool, were routinely awarded more than 20 percent of the admission slots.

The Cooks' mission to end race-based quotas in public higher education soon became Connerly's and thrust him into the national spotlight–first as the dismantler of racial preferences at the University of California, then as the campaign chairman of the California Civil Rights Initiative, and now as chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute and American Civil Rights Coalition, organizations he founded to export California's colorblind constitutional clause to other states.

Connerly was born in Louisiana in 1939 and, after his mother's death when he was 4 years old, was raised by his maternal grandmother in Del Paso Heights, a tough section of Sacramento. He attended a local community college before transferring to Sacramento State University, where he studied political theory and was elected student body president. After graduating in 1962, Connerly went to work for the California Department of Housing and Community Development. A few years later, at the suggestion of a young state representative named Pete Wilson, Connerly moved to the Assembly Housing Committee. From 1971 to 1973, he returned to the Department of Housing, serving as its deputy director, before starting his own consulting firm with his wife Ilene.

Identifiably black, Connerly is quick to remind reporters that he is also French, Irish, and Choctaw Indian–a diverse heritage that informs his crusade to make the United States a truly post-racial society. "I really am a product of America," he says. "I'm what came out of that melting pot."

Washington Editor Michael Lynch talked with Connerly in REASON's D.C. office last fall.

Reason: Your interest in dismantling racial preferences began with your appointment as a regent of the University of California. What drew you to the issue and what keeps you involved?

Ward Connerly: When the affirmative action issue unfolded, it was one of those times in life when one has to ask oneself what do you really believe in, what are your own values, how willing are you to submit them to the test of public opinion? I was sitting in a meeting back in 1993, almost my first meeting as a regent, and I heard Provost Walter Massey, the second-highest ranking person at U.C., give a presentation about diversity. I regarded it as almost mindless blather because the platitudes were rolling off his lips, and I asked, "Well, how do you build this diversity? What factors do you take into account?" There was
a pause and it was clear that he really hadn't thought about it too much. It was clear to me that if you're going to build diversity, you have to make choices about people on the basis of those factors that you want to be diverse about.

So I began to ask for data. I began to understand what was going on and to realize that the administration was lying to [the regents]. At that point, the issue wasn't whether I agreed with preferences–which is clearly what was going on. It was a question of governance. I thought, "If I'm going to be sentenced to this Board of Regents for 12 more years, I have to be able to trust what is being told to me by the administration." I came away believing that, on this one issue at least, I could not rely on what they told me and that I would have to do my own due diligence.

I wanted a report on what our practices and our policies were. I received that report in November [1994], and I became more convinced than ever that most of us on the board knew that what was going on was wrong. But it was a case of political correctness. So I challenged them. On July 20, 1995, the regents passed my resolution on a 14-to-10 vote to end preferences in admissions–there was one abstention. The vote was 15 to 10 on ending preferences in contracting and employment at the university.

I fully intended at that point to ride off into the sunset. I thought, I've done my duty. The campaign had been brutal, very personal, and my family had suffered a lot of abuse, as had I. My business had been harmed by my not being there.

Reason: So why didn't you ride off into the sunset?

Connerly: I had been romanced, if you will, by [the organizers of Proposition 209, the California Civil Rights Initiative that outlawed using race- or gender-based preferences in the public sector] for the better part of a year to join their effort. But I didn't want any part of it, for two reasons. One, I didn't want to continue on a statewide scale what I had gone through as a regent. As a regent, I had a legitimate reason for being involved. In a statewide campaign, the preference cartel would give me no slack. The other reason that I really dreaded getting involved is that I knew I would have to contend with the characterizations of "sellout" and "Uncle Tom" and "traitor" like no one has ever had to contend with it, except maybe for Clarence Thomas.

I had said, "No, no, no, a thousand times no." The thing that provoked me into saying yes was that the imminent doom of the California Civil Rights Initiative was reported in the papers. One of my colleagues on the Board of Regents, who voted against removing quotas from admission, Roy Brophy, wrote an op-ed piece that said, "If CCRI does not qualify for the ballot, I'm going to offer a motion to rescind [the ban on race-based preferences] because that will clearly confirm that the regents were out of step with the voters." And I thought, "The hell you say."

That was the thing that prompted me really to get involved. I felt that after all I'd gone through to get this changed at one of America's most prestigious institutions, it could all be lost–and not because the voters didn't embrace the principle that I pursued, but simply because of an inept campaign to gather the signatures.

Reason: The media like to portray Prop. 209 as a Republican Party ploy to elect its candidates in California. I saw a campaign energized by ordinary citizens. What was the role of the grassroots in Prop. 209?

Connerly: If anything, the grassroots used the Republican Party, rather than the other way around. This was truly an ecumenical campaign of libertarians, Democrats, and independents. Independent State Sen. Quentin Kopp played a phenomenal role in this campaign. So did Republicans, firefighters, policemen, housewives, and black people who really didn't like the voice of Jesse Jackson, that Energizer Bunny of doom and gloom. But we realized we needed money, and the Republican Party was able to give us that.

Reason: Is it significant that this now-national debate was sparked in California, the most ethnically diverse state in the country?

Connerly: There is a correlation between the degree of natural ethnic diversity and tolerance of policies which classify us by ethnic background and "race," and then confer benefits on that basis. When you have the kind of [ethnic and racial] differences that we have in California and a government policy which classifies us into basically five groups and says, "Three of you are going to get preferences at the [state] university and two of you are not," that is bound to create tension. It's bound to create its own energy to get rid of the damn policies.

Reason: Did affirmative action have to turn into a quota system in which different applicants are held to different standards?

Connerly: I'm not sure that we really knew what we wanted when we embarked on this detour. We had a feeling that if we stayed on course, it wasn't going to get us to where we wanted to go. We saw some bumps in the road and so we thought, "Let's avoid those bumps and let's see if we can get to grandma's house a little faster by taking this detour."

At first, I really thought that affirmative action was just a stronger version of equal opportunity. You used to see at the bottom of job announcements, "We are an equal opportunity employer." Then it became, "We are an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer." I thought that was just a stronger dose of equal opportunity. But we didn't adopt "affirmative action" as a word of art, we didn't run it through the gauntlet of Congress and other public-policy forums. We didn't do that and, as a result, it meant different things to different people.

For some of us–certainly for me–the idea that affirmative action has evolved into a system of different standards for people is something I never, ever thought was what affirmative action meant.

Reason: Until you were confronted by the data?

Connerly: That's right.

Reason: How large were the preferences at the University of California?

Connerly: They were huge. At the San Diego campus, for example, if you are American Indian, African American, Chicano [of Mexican heritage], or Latino [other Latin American heritage], you get an automatic 300 bonus points. There is no means test, there is no citizenship test, there is no residency test; it is a race preference that is given solely based on checking the box. The significance of a 300-point preference is huge. In many cases, five points can be decisive.

At Berkeley, a middle-to-upper-income black student with a 3.0 grade point average who was not a California resident had a better chance of being admitted than a 4.0, low-income, California resident who was Asian or white.

Reason: Do you think the president is sincere about his "conversation on race"?

Connerly: Clinton is a white liberal from the South who still has these guilt complexes, who understands the issue like few in America do. But while he has a good flight, he makes a lousy landing because he doesn't really know where he wants to go or he doesn't have the courage to find out. He wants to be known as the man who started the debate. But he's not providing the structure for the debate, he's not outlining the choice that we have to make: the "race matters" philosophy, or the "race has no place in American life or law" philosophy, enunciated by John F. Kennedy. The president is not going to do that, and his race panel is not going to do that.

Reason: What should Clinton do to provide the structure?

Connerly: If he fully utilized the power of the bully pulpit to draw our attention to race, rather than using this race panel to try and find a new rationale for affirmative action, he could say, "Look, America, I want you to gather in meeting rooms here to talk about black/white. I want to sit you on each side of the table. I want you, the white guy, to tell the black guy what you told me a few minutes ago, that you're tired of black people whining and wanting special treatment. Now, you, the black guy, I want you to tell the white guy what you told me, which is that you're tired of the white guy thinking he's always better than you and thinking that he's superior. Now get it out there on the table and let's have it out."

That's where we have to go. Government can't change these attitudes. But it can structure the debate–it can structure the forum so that we can be honest. That's what's missing from this whole equation.

Reason: Have people's attitudes about race fundamentally changed?

Connerly: I think that Joe Sixpack's and Jane Chablis's attitudes have fundamentally changed. There are four people in our society who you can argue are the most popular figures in America. They all happen to be black: Colin Powell, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, and Michael Jordan. Whites outnumber blacks by 8 to 1 almost; name me four whites who are equal in respect to those four.

My detractors will say, "Well, you're bringing up entertainment and sports." They hate it when I bring them up. But they're a part of our culture–they're central to our culture. You can go out to a ball game and you're sitting with America–black and white–watching for the most part black people entertain you.

But those four, those four reflect the changing attitudes of white America.

Reason: How do generational politics play out with regard to affirmative action?

Connerly: Young people respond very well [to proposals like Prop. 209], as long as I can keep them away from their parents. That is especially true when it comes to blacks. If there is any one group that I think is poisoning the well of integration, it's people in the black middle class. I don't mean everybody in that black middle class. But for the most part, lawyers, those who are in the academy, those who are in the media–they perceive themselves to have benefited from affirmative action and they want to pass the baton along to their kids.

Recently I spoke to the contributions council of the Fortune 75. These are companies that in the aggregate contribute about 23 percent of all corporate dollars given to charity. I was told that most of the people there earned $250,000 a year and up. A black woman stood up and said, "My husband and I give our son the best of everything. He lives in a suburban neighborhood, goes to a private school, plays tennis, lives an integrated life. But pretty soon he's going to have to go to college and we're going to have to sit him down and tell him about the professor who's going to try to steer him into the wrong track because he's African American. We're going to have to awaken him to the cruel world of racism." I thought, "He's gotten this far on his own without it. Why then is he now going to have to be educated by you about racism as he goes to some college?"

Reason: What role do universities play in fostering the culture of preferences?

Connerly: Universities are the most race-conscience institutions in America. Race seeps out of every pore. They think it's their duty to build this welcoming environment and, for all the right reasons, they do all the wrong things. They take these suburban kids who have lived integrated lives–middle-class black kids–and they bring them to "Black Welcome Week" at Berkeley. They give their names to the black student associations, which recruit them and tell them to come and have pizza with "your brothers and sisters." They're pressured to join their brothers and sisters. If [new students] don't, they're viewed as Toms, they're viewed as wanting to be white. So they start down this path of ethnic studies, they live in this multicultural-center ghetto where their only friends are blacks and occasionally a Latino. Once in a while, they will get their own floor in the dorm, they get their own curricula, and when they graduate, they get their own separate graduation ceremonies based on their ethnic background. Then they join the Black Alumni Counsel and the Black Lawyers Association or, if they go into business, it's the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce or the Black Chamber of Commerce. We prepare them well for a life of separatism.

Reason: Let me ask you about the other side of this generational effect: What do you say to a 70-year-old woman who attended a segregated school, suffered daily the injustice of Jim Crow, and whose situation changed greatly when the federal government stepped in?

Connerly: It's not the 70-year-old that you have to worry about, it's the 50-year-old and the 40-year-old. Those are the ones that are causing the most grief right now in terms of public policy and public attitudes. Because, ironically, the 70-year-old knows that things have changed. The 70-year-old is the first person that accepts the fact that, boy, there's been a lot of progress. But if that 70-year-old happens to be what I call one of the 10 percenters–and I'll explain that to you–you tell that person about the changes in America. How it used to be that you couldn't drink from the fountain, you couldn't go into the restaurant, your kids couldn't attend the school. You tell them about life now and how they can do all those things. I think that they will accept that.

It also depends on what part of the nation you're in. If you're in Milwaukee, where blacks are 12 percent of the population and the dominant minority, and there are many institutions where no blacks are working, they know that they don't get a fair shot. They know that people around there are not going to give them equal opportunity–and I don't mean preferences here.

It is hard to tell that person that you don't need affirmative action. I think you can tell the person that we don't need preferences, that we don't need quotas, and that we don't want to start down the road California went down.

But I think, then, the debate switches from that 70-year-old black person to the white person in Wisconsin. You have to say, "Look, we have to figure out a way here to change the culture of these institutions. We have to figure out a way of being more aggressive about dealing with discrimination."

I want to create a paradigm that allows us to detect discrimination and to deal with it–not to give preferences, but to make sure that people get an equal chance to compete.

Reason: How do you craft affirmative action that doesn't quickly turn into quotas?

Connerly: First of all, under no circumstances do we go with numbers, goals, and timetables because they lead inevitably to quotas. No matter how much you say, "Quotas are illegal," they are practiced. Racial counting cannot be a part of this new paradigm. But I don't think that we're ready yet to go cold turkey to a color-blind society. I think that black people who have become so emotionally dependent on this system cannot have the elimination of preferences just shoved down their throats. I think that we have to provide some sort of reassurance plan.

I think that black people fall into four groups on this issue. There are what I call the "10 percenters." They believe that preferences are justified because of slavery, Jim Crow, and all of that.

There's another 30 percent who believe that preferences are wrong and affirmative action has become a system of preferences. These are people who have their own businesses, who are in government, who are Republicans, who are conservatives, who are moderates–people who believe that there is a taint to affirmative action. They want to get rid of that taint, that stigma. That's the group that voted for Prop. 209.

Then there's another 30 percent who will tell you that preferences are wrong but who say, "You've got to reassure me that the white man is going to be fair, that he's not going to go back to the old boys' network. If you can reassure me of that, I'll join you. I'll vote for this, if you can just give me that reassurance."

There's a final 30 percent who say, "I know that preferences are wrong, but not only do I want the reassurance, I want some more time here, until my kids and my grandkids have all gotten through the pipeline."

I've written off the 10 percenters; you'll never change them. To those who want more time: I can't give you more time–preferences are wrong. They are harming innocent people, so I can't give you more time. Those of you who want the reassurance, I think I owe you that.

As we begin to craft this new paradigm, we have to think about those things that will allow us to provide that reassurance. I don't have the answers to that. I'm trying to develop this as I go around the nation and trying to figure out what it's going to take to close the deal. It's that 30 percent that want the reassurance–and I meet them all the time. I have to be able to convince them that even if people aren't basically good, here are some tools that are in place that are going to allow you to be certain that you're going to get fair treatment. I don't know how we can craft a color-blind society overnight.

Reason: How do you make it clear to minority youths that they are not being disenfranchised by policy changes? How do you shake perceptions that there are no opportunities for minority youths?

Connerly: Kids presumably go to school–we mandate they go to school, don't we? If kids go to school, there should be teachers and counselors there. We have to ask them, "Are you putting that sort of idea into kids' heads?"

When we talk about the deficiencies of K-12 education, that is precisely the kind of flaw that we find. Teachers and counselors are not providing role models for these kids and are not providing the kind of information that they should be. More than ever, teachers and counselors need to be well-rounded to provide the kind of support that these kids are not getting at home.

There are other institutions–like United Way, the Salvation Army, and [professional basketball player] Kevin Johnson's St. Hope Academy in Sacramento, which takes kids after school and provides them with a home away from home–that can provide the information. Do they go to church? If they do, then the church can sort of provide that. If they don't go to church, they probably watch television. If they watch television, maybe our government ought to induce some of these stations to provide public-service announcements that hit these kids: Have Michael Jordan or somebody making a statement that, "Hey, I understand that Chevron has some jobs for young kids who want to work this summer. Come on down." There are all kinds of things we can do.

That's part of the reassurance package I see us having to do to let people know that we are serious. As a conservative, I plead guilty for my colleagues who are not doing enough to provide that reassurance package. We lack the credibility because it seems we're only preoccupied with eliminating the preference system. We have not done our job to say, "We're doing this because we want you to live a better life, because we think you can do it on your own without having to suffer this taint, this stigma."

Reason: Much attention has been paid to your rise from humble beginnings to a successful businessman–usually in an attempt to somehow show that it was not the result of hard work.

Connerly: The defenders of preferences don't want any good news. They don't want to believe that the American dream is realizable for black people. It contradicts their whole value system. Their arguments rest on the notions that Americans are bad, that white people cannot be trusted, that you have to have this gun to their head to make them do the right thing, and that black people need this system to navigate the daily transactions of American life. That we can't make it without it–not because we're not talented, but because we won't get a fair deal.

It is really hard to defend affirmative-action preferences. The only arguments you can use are either that we need diversity just for the sake of diversity, or that America is still racist. You have to embrace one of those two. And you find that you can't win those arguments at the end of the day. So you don't deal with the issue as an issue.

One of my detractors is a guy named Marion Woods. Marion Woods was former California Gov. Jerry Brown's welfare director. He is married to a cousin of mine. He sat at my Aunt Hazel's house–my Aunt Hazel supports me–and he said, "We're going to bring him down, we're going to bring him down." And the way that you bring him down is you take him as a candidate, you don't deal with the issue as an issue. You deal with it as a candidate's campaign. You try to find things that will somehow discredit the individual.

Reason: An anti-preference initiative recently lost in Houston and federal anti-preference legislation is stalled in Congress. What do these outcomes say about the future of racial preferences?

Connerly: Racial preferences are dead. All that is required now is to give them a decent and honorable burial. The defeat of the Houston initiative and the cowardice in the House Judiciary Committee are speed bumps that slow down the movement to end preferences. But they won't stop it.

The Houston initiative occurred in a political community in which black people represent 26 percent of the population, Latinos 33 percent, and Asians 6 percent. In this environment, you can construct a political calculus of women and minorities allied against white males. That is precisely the political equation that the mayor [of Houston] crafted. You should not be surprised when you can get people to vote on the basis of their racial identity and defeat measures like the Houston Civil Rights Initiative.

It would have passed if the original language of the initiative had been what the voters were voting on. The language that appeared on the ballot–along the lines of "Shall the City of Houston prohibit affirmative action for women and minorities now and in the future?"–was not the language that people had signed the petitions for. [That language] was about preferential treatment. When the mayor was able to make sure the voters were voting on "affirmative action," and not on patently preferential treatment, the election was lost.

Long term, the heavy lifting involves our having the courage to go into black neighborhoods, into Latino neighborhoods, and into Asian neighborhoods, and to make the case that their rights are no more secure than anyone else's when our government has the power to make you check a box–and to confer benefits on the basis of the box.

Reason: What is the payoff for all of your efforts? What is your vision of the post-preference future?

Connerly: My vision of the post-preference future is probably best summed up by Janice Camarena Ingraham. Janice is a white mother of four, three when I first met her. When her first husband, who was Mexican American, died, she had to go back to school to support her family. She enrolled in a remedial English class, which was part of a program restricted for African Americans at San Bernardino Valley Community College.

On the first day of school, the instructor said there were two people in the class who would have to leave. Both were white women, and one of them was Janice. Janice sued and the case was settled out of court. As a result of this experience, she became convinced that this was a fight that was worth fighting until the end. There was another program, the Puente program, for Latinos and Chicanos. Janice realized that one of her daughters could attend the Puente program, but the other two could not, since their father was white. Janice came away believing that something was wrong in this country when one of her daughters could attend a class but the other two could not.

When Janice had her fourth baby in early November 1997, she refused to check the box on the birth certificate indicating racial and ethnic identity because she wanted a raceless baby.

For me, this whole movement leads to the goal of not checking the silly boxes, of not even wanting the boxes. That is where we are heading. We are going back to what John F. Kennedy said in 1963, that "race has no place in American life or law." The influence of our movement, the one thing that I can pass into my grave feeling very good about, is that we started the momentum so that now Americans are genuinely believing and rededicating themselves to the proposition that we really do want to be a raceless society.