Civil Rights

Ward Connerly's New Cause

The man who ended affirmative action in California is pushing for a colorblind government

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"It's no longer a noble aspiration to pursue colorblindness," says a saddened Ward Connerly. "We'd rather build a cabinet that looks like America. Colorblindness is not an objective of government anymore."

I'm not sure that colorblindness ever was an "objective" of any of our governments–federal, state, or local. But I am sure that Ward Connerly has made it his life's goal to ensure that California's government is colorblind. Connerly, you may recall, is the California businessman and University of California regent who led the effort to end racial preferences in the UC system in 1995. He did the same thing for California's entire public sector in 1996 with Prop. 209, which outlawed the use of race in governmental hiring or contracting. His latest cause: Connerly is pushing a new ballot measure called the Racial Privacy Initiative, a state constitutional amendment that would prohibit the state from classifying "any individual by race, ethnicity, color or national origin in the operation of public education, public contracting or public employment."

Connerly wants to have his initiative on the ballot in November 2002. He hopes that the myriad racial check boxes with which Californians are confronted on government forms will join de jure segregation as relics of a bygone, and less enlightened, era.

"This will cause us to decide whether we want a colorblind government or whether we want one that codes its people by color and tries to 'build diversity' using a color-coded system," says Connerly, whose ancestors include American slaves, American Indians and Europeans. "The debate will be sharply focused and I think the people will make the right decision ultimately: That the government should treat us in relation to race, ethnicity, and natural origin the same way it does in relation to religion. It just doesn't ask those questions."

Connerly, then, doesn't really believe that voters have abandoned "colorblind" government. In fact, he figures that 80 percent of people will agree with him. For him, it's the elites in government, business, academia, media and the non-profit sector who have abandoned the colorblind ideal.

Nary a significant life event passes without Americans being asked to confess to a racial ancestry. Sometime the questions are optional, other times they aren't. When my sister-in-law tied the knot two years ago in Rhode Island, her minister crossed out the racial boxes on the marriage license and wrote, "inappropriate question." The state disagreed, and said my sister and her fiance would live in sin until they provided a better answer. In California, individuals must provide race information when their children are born. It is also required when one applies for a state job, and when one dies.

Contrary to Connerly, however, governmental fixation on race is hardly a modern impulse. The United States has been obsessed with race since its founding and questions regarding race have been asked on every census. The first lumped all Americans into two categories, "free whites" and "slaves." Since then, various categories have come and gone, always with an eye toward screwing those not deemed "white." It's only relatively recently that such data collection has been used to benefit minorities—to enforce anti-discrimination laws and facilitate racial preference programs in education, government, and employment—rather than keep them in their place (whether that place was a segregated bathroom or a World War II detention camp).

Connerly understands he's not really working for a return to an actual era of colorblind government, but to an ideal at the core of America's founding, the Declaration of Independence's most celebrated clause: "All men are created equal." Abraham Lincoln called this the "standard maxim for free society" that "even though never perfectly attained," would be "familiar to all" and "constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and the value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere."

To hear conservative Republicans tell it, these days it's only minority advocates who insist on categorizing Americans by race. But the leaders of the party of Lincoln, to which Connerly belongs, insist on racial classification too. The GOP supports racially gerrymandered Congressional districts and is currently pushing an educational bill that specifically demands that school districts report student academic performance by race. People of many political stripes, ideologies, and races want all sorts of data broken down by race.

In fact, Connerly notes that a lot of the same academics in the social sciences who supported Prop. 209 are refusing to endorse his latest effort. "They're taking the same position as the NAACP on this issue because they want the data," says Connerly. "But if you really believe in a color blind government, than giving up the data is one of the prices we must pay. If you're going to be race-conscious and you're going to gather this data, then, damn it, you are going to use it one way or the other."

That's the message Connerly is taking on the road as he tries to raise money to fund a third victory in California. He was originally aiming for the March 2002 ballot, but came up short of both time and money. He plans to file the initiative with the Secretary of State late this summer. In the fall, he plans to start gathering the 670,000 signatures he needs to put it on the ballot in November 2002.

"There's nothing more fundamental to this nation as having a government that is blind to color," says Connerly, who admits to being an idealist. "It is personal, in a sense, and it's my duty. It's part of my evolution of being involved in the public arena to say that the endgame for me is not just getting rid of racial preferences, it's getting rid of the classifications that allow the preferences."