A century ago, as America made clear its retreat from the egalitarian gains of Reconstruction, two powerful voices set out differing agendas for how black Americans should respond to the rise of Jim Crow. For Booker T. Washington, the best that blacks could hope for was to accommodate themselves to the tide of white reaction and, through economic and social self-help, perhaps could make themselves deserving of full political and legal rights. In contrast to Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois argued that such accommodation only legitimized and bolstered white reaction, and he counseled that blacks should retreat not an inch in claiming their full rights as citizens.
Today, as America undergoes a similar retreat from the gains of the civil rights era, two books mirror a similar split in the strategies and tactics of black Americans. In Creating Equal: My Fight Against Racial Preferences, Ward Connerly casts himself as a latter-day version of Washington. In fact, Connerly takes great pride in a comment made to him by Washington's great-grandson: "Your message is basically the same as his. Stand on your own two feet, rely on yourself, and stop blaming the world for your problems."
The first part of Connerly's book provides a Washingtonian, Up From Slavery-esque account of early years. For him, proper doses of family love, discipline and hard work are all that's necessary and sufficient for success. "It is not the life we're given, but the life we make of the life we're given that counts," he opines. Not only does Connerly fail to recognize that race and class exert a powerful effect on what kind of life we can make for ourselves, but certain aspects of his own life story ring false. As he tells it, one of the central events in his upbringing was as a teenager, when he and his maternal grandmother (who raised him after the death of his mother) were forced to go on welfare, an experience that he found stigmatizing and degrading. After a year and a half, Connerly decided that he'd had enough, and he stormed out of the house to look for a job. According to him, he accepted a part-time (he's quite clear on this point) job that paid 65 cents an hour, which allowed him to make $80 a month--$20 more than what welfare provided. For Connerly, this relative amount is important, since he wishes to demonstrate that hard work, even on a part-time basis, is more profitable than welfare. But at 65 cents an hour, one would have to have worked nearly full-time to earn that much, suggesting either that Connerly's memory might be a bit selective or that the value of low-wage work over welfare might not be as obvious as he would like it to seem.
But discrepancy or no, Connerly rarely misses an opportunity to criticize contemporary young blacks. In one instance, he writes: "As I drove out of my old neighborhood, an elderly black man waved at me, and a black teenager spit in the direction of my car. I wasn't sure what to make of any of this." (If he wasn't sure, what is the point of the anecdote--other than for the reader to draw an unfavorable impression of young blacks?)
For the rest of Connerly's work experience, success would rely at least as much on political cronyism as on luck and pluck. He relates several instances in which he parlayed his insider connections into personal financial gain. In one, his friend Pete Wilson (then Mayor of San Diego) called Connerly about a new federal program for local governments, telling him, "I wanted to give you a heads-up on this. You probably ought to take an interest." Connerly indeed took an interest, and a lucrative one at that: "I immediately made contacts with cities and counties all over the state telling them about the bill and how they could control their own lower-income housing activities. Connerly & Associates established many relationships then that continue today."
Ironically, Connerly's professional experiences reinforce one of the arguments cited for affirmative action--that such policies provide black Americans with a chance to partake of the personal ties and old-boy networks that are clearly one of the perks of elite education and other socially inclusive situations. Furthermore, while Connerly denies ever having benefited directly from affirmative action, the claim seems implausible given his work with California government agencies, contractors and lobbyists over the past four decades. Even he admits that his appointment to the University of California Board of Regents came about because "an understanding had been reached between the governor and the senate, which has the power of confirmation, that future appointments would reflect greater 'diversity.'" Despite this, Connerly claims that race was not the crucial factor in his selection but instead that he was a crony of Governor Wilson. "Cronyism," Connerly claims, "is at least based on one's individual qualities; diversity is based on factors that render individuality irrelevant." Connerly was indeed a crony, but more important, he was a black crony, and thus ideal window dressing for white Republicans like Wilson, who sought to raise their political fortunes by attacking affirmative action.
Throughout his book, Connerly insists that he opposes affirmative action for reasons of principle, not out of a desire to curry favor with wealthy and powerful conservatives or to shed the psychological baggage of his mixed-raced ancestry. There seems no reason to doubt his sincerity on this score, but why does he consistently refuse to see his opponents in a similar light? The stories of those who have benefited from affirmative action are dismissed as "maudlin" or "specious." Black civil rights leaders who support affirmative action are charlatans and demagogues, and the ordinary blacks who agree with them are dupes. Connerly even includes Colin Powell in this latter category, claiming that he changed his tune on affirmative action after "Jesse Jackson and the 'brothers' got to him." On the other hand, those who support Connerly's position are utterly altruistic. In his acknowledgments, Connerly mentions, among others, Glenn Campbell (former head of the Hoover Institution), Richard Gilder, Rupert Murdoch, Richard Mellon Scaife, the John M. Olin Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation--all of whom were motivated solely by the "desire to make this nation a better place."