Intent on dismantling affirmative action, activists in five states have launched a coordinated drive to cut off tax dollars for programs that offer preferential treatment based on race or gender.
The campaign aims to put affirmative action bans on the November ballot in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma. The effort is being organized by California consultant Ward Connerly, who has successfully promoted similar measures in California, Michigan and Washington.
Supporters of affirmative action say the initiatives will be hard to block, given that Connerly has a proven ability to raise funds and persuade voters, even in more liberal states.
“They’ve targeted states where there’s a white majority electorate and a vocal, if small, extreme anti-immigrant right wing,” said Shanta Driver, who runs By Any Means Necessary, a coalition that defends affirmative action. In such states, she said, “it’s extremely difficult for us to win.”
If successful, the ballot measures would ban a broad range of programs designed to overcome the nation’s legacy of racism and discrimination.
As he has in the past, Connerly is promoting the ballot measures as “civil rights initiatives.”
The wording may differ slightly from state to state, but in general the measures say: “The state shall not discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to any group or individual on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin. . . .”
Opponents say that’s misleading because it doesn’t explicitly say that affirmative action would be banned.
Arizona, Colorado and Oklahoma recently passed tough laws aimed at stopping illegal immigrants from holding jobs or receiving government benefits. Missouri is weighing similar measures. Nationally, debate rages about illegal immigrants’ efforts to get driver’s licenses and pay in-state tuition.
A public angry at mostly Latino illegal immigrants may be in no mood to listen to arguments about a need for racial preferences.
Connerly, who is of black, white and Native American heritage, began fighting against racial preferences as a member of the University of California Board of Regents in the mid-1990s. He has said he came to the issue after meeting with a white couple whose son had been rejected from several University of California medical schools; they believed less-qualified minority students had an unfair edge in admissions. A land-use consultant by training, Connerly now devotes himself to anti-affirmative- action campaigns.
Even after a decade, the effect of his initiatives in California and Washington is not clear-cut. Minority enrollment at public universities plunged at first but has since rebounded except at a few of the most elite campuses.
In the economic sphere, a California Department of Transportation study last year found that based on the number of businesses owned by women and minorities, such companies should be getting 19% of state transportation contracts. In fact, their share has amounted to 11%.
To defeat Connerly’s ballot measures, his foes must use such statistics to make the case that American society is still riddled with racism and discrimination.
That’s a message voters may not want to hear. “We’d all like to think it’s hunky-dory,” said David B. Oppenheimer, a professor at Golden Gate University law school.
Significant disparities in income among races exist in all five states Connerly is targeting, with Asians on top, then whites, then Latinos, then blacks. The exception to that order is Arizona, where blacks earn more than Latinos.
Many opponents of racial preferences say these disparities can best be addressed through aid based on economic need, not race. Carl Cohen, who teaches philosophy at the University of Michigan, says he supports mentoring programs, financial support, even preferential college admissions for the economically disadvantaged. “But to do it on the basis of the color of your skin, or the country where your grandfather happened to be born—what the hell does that have to do with anything?” he said.
In response, Oppenheimer mentions a study published a few years ago in the American Journal of Sociology. Researchers sent black and white men with nearly identical resumes to apply for hundreds of entry-level jobs. In some cases, the men were instructed to say they had spent 18 months in prison on a felony drug conviction. The results: Whites with a criminal record were more likely to be called back than blacks with no record.
African Americans, he points out, make up 12% of the workforce. Yet they’re only 3% of the chief executives, 5% of the medical scientists and 5% of the lawyers.
Connerly responds that overt discrimination should be punished by the courts. But to presume that every minority needs special treatment is demeaning, he said. To make that point, he has turned to local activists who say they can testify to the corrosive effects of racial preference.