Lauren Dunn

Wednesday, March 14

Ward Connerly, director of the American Civil Rights Campaign and tireless anti-affirmative action crusader, announced his preliminary list of targeted states at a Mar. 2 Heritage Foundation event for what he has dubbed “Super Tuesday for Equality in 2008.” Watch out, public university students in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Nevada, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. If Connerly has his way, he may take what he calls “sugar-coated words like diversity and inclusion” right out of your campus diets.

After a major electoral victory in November 2006 on Proposal 2 in Michigan, a ballot initiative which outlawed all preferences based on race, ethnicity, or gender in public education and employment, Connerly and his colleagues were emboldened to seek out five more states in which to crusade against affirmative action. “The Rockies look especially promising,” Connerly, a former regent of the University of California system, said when asked which of those listed nine states he would include as part of his five focused ’08 campaigns. “Now, after Michigan, it will only get easier,” he exclaimed. Connerly admitted he was shocked to win in a more liberal state like Michigan, where both major parties opposed Prop. 2, adding, “Republicans are realizing they miscalculated in supporting social equity over individual rights.”

Connerly and his fanatics have convinced themselves that affirmative action “did the wrong thing in the name of fairness,” as he put it. They believe that Prop. 209, which decimated affirmative action in California, has resulted in fairer admittance rates at the state’s public universities in the 10 years since its enactment. Their success in gaining 54 percent of the public vote in what many would consider a progressive state also led to pre-emptive moves by none other than the Bush brothers (Jeb and then-Governor George W.) in both the Florida and Texas state university systems to percentage plans that were said to yield race-neutral admittance results.

But if the mission of a public university is to provide a quality education to a population that reflects the demographics of the greater surrounding community, then the trends we’re seeing are hardly approaching fair. In Los Angeles County, which has the second largest African American population in the entire United States, the most prestigious local public university, UCLA, has only 96 African-Americans as part of this year’s freshman class of 4,852 students. That’s only 2 percent, and it represents the smallest population of African-American UCLA students in over 30 years.

Why is this? Because failed public education systems hinder the race-neutrality of “percentage plans” for university admission, making plans like Florida’s Talented 20 an entirely ineffective alternative to race-conscious affirmative action. Leading education researchers have found that African-American, Latino and Native American students receive the least support in the public school system across the country. And school districts in the most impoverished areas have teachers and principals with significantly lower qualifications than those serving higher income areas. Poor districts are often made up of as many as three-quarters minority students who live at or below the poverty line.

But according to Connerly, leveling the playing field is not the point. As he understands it, affirmative action policies allow race to matter and “if we let race matter, then we’ll never move towards an America that can get beyond race.” Moving beyond race is a laudable goal; an ideal that affirmative action supporters would agree is at the core of our struggle toward diversity. But Connerly finds fault with the black community itself rather than a corrupted system, claiming it is up to them to get their kids through high school and “adapt to the changes in American life” rather than “perpetuating paranoia that their President won’t move fast enough to save them in the aftermath of a hurricane.”

Obviously, despite their claims to the contrary, race does matter to the anti-affirmative action establishment. It’s no mistake that Connerly, who is of both African and Native American descent, has been christened by his white supporters as the African American community’s most important leader. He’s “clean and articulate,” Roger Clegg, the president of the misnamed Center for Equal Opportunity, pointed out in a not so tasteful reference to Sen. Joe Biden’s Obama slip-up, when inviting Connerly to the podium. He’s also willing to claim minority status while at the same time dismissing twentieth century American history as “the oppression of blacks…yeah, we all know that.”

The work of the anti-affirmative action contingent has not “hastened the transition from a race-conscious society to one where race has no place in American life or law,” as Connerly once claimed it would. And it won’t. But it will end diversity on more major university campuses–if progressives don’t mobilize and stop him.

Lauren Dunn is a special assistant to the executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress. In February 2006, she received a B.A. in comparative religion from Tufts University and a B.F.A. in studio art from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.