A short while ago, Ward Connerly, the indefatigable anti-affirmative-action crusader, was visiting Kevin Johnson, the former guard for the Phoenix Suns. Johnson is a Democrat who runs the St. Hope Academy, which helps at-risk kids. He is also running for mayor of Sacramento. "I was making my database available to him to get contributions," Connerly recalls. "And I'm walking out and this attractive black woman looked at me and said, ‘Are you who I think you are?'""And I said, ‘Who do you think I am?'""Ward Connerly?" the woman replied, her face registering her shock."That's who I am.""What are you doing here?" she asked him."And I said, ‘I'm supporting my friend.'"For Connerly, 69, widely credited with halving the black student population at the University of California at Berkeley, the encounter carried great significance. Here, a man who has dedicated the better part of his life to dismantling affirmative action suddenly felt pigeonholed. "Why do we put people into these boxes and say that they're monolithic of thought?" he says now, reclining in his chair at the Westin hotel in Washington, D.C. "The general notion is that I just want to take away opportunities for minorities rather than [that] I don't think what we're doing now works. There is a better way to solve the problem."Ward Connerly is seated comfortably in a dining room that opens onto a rear patio of the cushy Westin. He seems at ease in these environs, attired in the uniform of a middle-aged man of means: chinos, a white-and-blue-checked button-down, a navy blazer, sensible loafers. A neat moustache frames his mouth. He has high cheekbones, significant jowls, and straight salt-and-pepper hair that rings a prominent bald spot. His default expression is skepticism. A few tense moments earlier, his face creased and his eyes bore into mine. He was trying to figure out if he was being set up for another hit piece.As the most vilified conservative black man since Clarence Thomas, Ward Connerly has grown tired of defending himself. He has walked off the stage when confronted by hostile college students, and said no to many interviews. He has built a career on taking stances unpopular with both blacks and conservatives, and expects the criticism, he says, to an extent. "I'm no right-wing extremist," he maintains. "How can you characterize a guy who sides with gays on marriage as a right-wing extremist?"In the 12 years that he's been campaigning against racial quotas in higher education, he's been called much worse. He's been dismissed as a "house negro" by his opponents, who tirelessly chronicle his every move through a network of labor, civil-rights, and legal-advocacy groups. His supporters, meanwhile, feel he's championing the idea of a post-racial society, one in which merit trumps skin color and socioeconomics are a primary issue.Connerly came to the fore of the affirmative-action debate in 1996. As a University of California regent-one of the 26 governing members of the state's university system-Connerly championed a ballot initiative called Proposition 209, the biggest blow to the use of racial quotas in college admissions since, well, ever. Fifty-four percent of California's electorate ultimately voted for Prop 209, which banned the consideration of race in public hiring, contracting, and admissions to the University of California, the largest state-run university system in the world. But Connerly didn't stop there. Two years later, he championed I-200, a similar ballot initiative in Washington State, and then in 2000 he helped Florida's Governor Jeb Bush push an affirmative-action ban through the state legislature.Now, he is taking the effort nationwide. Through his American Civil Rights Institute, a nonprofit that he founded with Thomas L. "Dusty" Rhodes in 1996, Connerly has sponsored eight major anti-affirmative action initiatives. In 2006, his initiative banning affirmative action was passed by a 16-point margin in Michigan, and the last year he embarked on his most ambitious campaign to date: Super Tuesday for Equal Rights, a well-organized, well-funded drive to end sex- and race-based preferences in public universities, hiring, and contracting in five states-Oklahoma, Missouri, Nebraska, Colorado, and Arizona. If all those initiatives were to pass into law, it would be a precedent-setting assault on the nationwide effort to preserve affirmative action.
Connerly's crusade to end affirmative action is powered by a complex money web that connects the same handful of conservative heavyweights.
So far, Connerly has seen mixed results: The ACRI didn't gather enough signatures to get the measure on the Oklahoma and Missouri ballots; it landed on the Colorado ballot, but may not remain there, as it is being challenged in Denver district court; in early July, it made it onto the ballot in Nebraska and Arizona."What I am working on is getting rid of preferences based on race, and trying to force my country into the position of going with affirmative action based on socioeconomics," he says. "You know it would be naïve for anyone to believe that we have totally climbed to the mountaintop with Obama's nomination, [that] all racism is over. It's not. There is still a lot of stuff to be done, but I think we have to do it in a different way."In Connerly's world, the racial playing field began to even out in the 1970s, and has been getting better ever since. For him quotas, at this point, are beside the point. As for what exactly he is proposing, his suggestions are less concrete. "The other thing I think we need to change," he says, "is how black people are viewed."Wardell Anthony Connerly has lived long enough to see a shift in America's perception of black people. He was born in Leesville, Louisiana, just over the Texas line. His father abandoned the family when he was 2; he was 4 when his mother died. Shortly after that, Ward came north to live with his grandmother in Washington State; he later moved in with an aunt and uncle in Sacramento.For the better part of his early years, Connerly lived in Del Paso Heights, a mixed, working-class neighborhood where options for higher education were limited. "There were only about four black kids in my neighborhood who wanted to go to college," he says. "And one of them had the wheels." He followed the kid with the car to American River Junior College. By the time he graduated, he was student-body president.In 1959, Connerly transferred to Sacramento State University, where he again became student-body president, as well as chairing the committee against housing discrimination and becoming the first black member of his fraternity. While he was there, he formed close relationships with key faculty members, in particular a political-theory professor named John Livingston. "Dr. Livingston would end his lectures often by saying ‘We shall overcome,'" Ward recalls. "Not in a Black Panther style but just a suggestion of revving people up. And I once asked him, ‘How will we know if we've overcome?'" He gave Connerly three measures: "Number one, when a white girl can bring her [black] fiancé home to mom and dad and the dad not become apoplectic; second, when any white, no matter how lowly, is willing to walk in the shoes of any black, no matter how successful; the third test was when a black man could be seriously considered for President of the United States.' I think by his definition we have overcome."
What I am working on is getting rid of preferences based on race … The other thing is I think we need to change is how black people are viewed.
After graduating, in 1962, Connerly proved to be an adept networker. He spent four years in the office of state legislator Pete Wilson, who urged him to start Connerly & Associates, a land-use planning company. Their relationship was symbiotic: Wilson drove business his way; Connerly became a big Republican donor and a key ally. By 1991, Wilson had become governor of California. He appointed Connerly to the University of California Board of Regents.Since then, Connerly has remained close to the right-wing power structure. His crusade to end affirmative action is powered by a complex money web that connects the same handful of conservative heavyweights-something that isn't lost on the progressive watchdogs who proliferate online. He has received money from Rupert Murdoch (he's also a Fox News darling), the Bradley Foundation (the same folks who funded The Bell Curve, the book that posits that black people are intellectually inferior to whites and Asians), the Coors family, and the now-defunct John M. Olin Foundation (which gave research money to libertarian ABC reporter John Stossel), to name a few.The money trail bothers his critics, but not as much as some of Connerly's other strategies-particularly his portrayal of Super Tuesday as a series of grassroots campaigns that sprang up organically in states where he's sponsored the ballots. "It's all driven from out-of-state money and out-of-state ideology," says Craig Hughes, a Denver political consultant who is battling the Colorado ballot initiative. "There hasn't been any clamoring in the state of Colorado to ban equal-opportunity programs." Connerly claims he chose five states where there was popular support for repealing affirmative action. But look a little closer and the so-called "local" supporters-Arizona's Goldwater Institute, the Nebraska Association of Scholars, and Colorado's Independence Institute-and you'll see they're all connected to the same deep right-wing pockets as the ACRI.Connerly is also paid handsomely for his crusade-a factor his critics think is his true motivation. He makes no apologies for his salary. When he's asked if reports that he makes as much as $400,000 per year are accurate, he flashes a quick smile and says ambiguously, "I hope it's more than that." As it turns out, it's much more. In 2003, he earned more than $1 million in compensation-the same year he was fined $95,000 by the California Fair Political Practices Commission for not disclosing who funded a proposed California ballot initiative. In his defense, the Heritage Foundation's Becky Norton Dunlop has said, "Most people who donate to causes such as this, that are controversial, recognize that talented and effective leaders must be compensated or they'll find other ways to make a living. Connerly's … willingness to speak out on the issue has had national impact." In other words, he's invaluable to the cause.
If all three of Connerly's new ballot initiatives were to pass into law, it would be a precedent-setting assault on the nationwide effort to preserve affirmative action.
To critics like Shanta Driver, who heads an organization called the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, And Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (known as BAMN), it's unimaginable that a black man born in the Jim Crow South can in good conscience take money from opponents of the 1964 Civil Rights Acts like the Coors family. Driver thinks the real intent of Connerly's ballots is far more dire. She charges that his aim is to "resegregate higher education in America and through that to really restructure American society in a way that is once again aimed at preserving white privilege."But Connerly feels unfairly targeted. "We are promoting a change in the system," he says. "They have the luxury of hanging back and throwing their barbs. I understand some of that, but there is no equality there. People don't ask them the same question. They never ask the NAACP or the ACLU ‘Where do you get your funding?'"Since Proposition 209, the first large-scale affirmative action rollback, three of the four largest state university systems in the country-California, Florida, and Texas-have adopted similar programs. During this time, according to a graph trotted out by the American Civil Rights Institute, there has been an impressive increase in minority enrollment across the nine-campus University of California system. "We had this huge retention gap, a huge gap in the graduation rate, that is now beginning to close as people are going where they are academically competitive," Connerly says.But the ACRI's data often clashes with dismal stats showing drops in black and Latino enrollment at the best schools in the system-like UCLA and Berkeley-according to a study the University of California published in 2008. ACRI data also doesn't account for California's demographic shifts: In 1989, underrepresented minorities (blacks, Latinos, American Indians, and Pacific Islanders) comprised 30 percent of all California high school graduates and 21 percent of freshman admitted to the university system. In 2006, that same group had grown to comprise 46 percent of high school graduates, but the number admitted to UC schools remained nearly the same.The now-banned affirmative action system has been replaced with other official policies. There is the Connerly-championed "comprehensive review," which takes a holistic view of students. "We look at what school a student attended, what courses were offered, what courses you took, your socioeconomic conditions, whether you had a parent go to college," Connerly explains. Also, the top 4 percent of California high school graduates who have taken the required courses are guaranteed admission to the UC system. In schools that are de facto racially segregated, diversity will be achieved in a way that doesn't use quotas and is more palatable to conservatives. A third Connerly-backed pathway to the UC schools, through California's community colleges, is supposed to further mitigate the effects of the ban.Still, the numbers don't quite add up. At UC schools, blacks still have the lowest system-wide admission rates of any ethnic group. The community-college pathway is also producing the lowest return for black students and for Latinos as well. And while admittance rates for blacks have skyrocketed at the university's least-competitive campuses-Riverside, Merced, and Santa Cruz-they've halved at the more prestigious Berkeley and UCLA. By this, Connerly seems unmoved. "Affirmative action might help a handful of [middle-class] black kids go to Berkeley with a heavy hand on the scale, rather than San Francisco State University on their own," he says.With anti-affirmative-action efforts making it onto the ballots in Arizona, Colorado, and Nebraska, Connerly's opponents fear similar effects on those student bodies.Much of the debate between Connerly and his detractors revolves around the term "affirmative action" itself. Connerly draws a distinction between two phases of affirmative action. The first phase, which began with John F. Kennedy's Executive Order 10925 and was later bolstered by the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, made sure that the government did not discriminate. The second phase, proactively helping minorities, began in the mid-1960s, and can be summed up in the words of Lyndon Johnson, who once said, "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line in a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair."In practice, says Connerly, Johnson's is a policy that "[gives] certain groups of Americans what one can call preferential treatment-lower standards for college admission, contracts that are set aside … in the interest of diversity. I was in favor of LBJ's version at that moment in time. And I think we're beyond that point." Connerly says the shift occurred somewhere in the mid-1970s, when the notion "that black people needed a heavy hand on the scale in order to enter the mainstream of American life began to change."
Affirmative action might help a handful of [middle-class] black kids go to Berkeley with a heavy hand on the scale, rather than SanFrancisco State University on their own.
Now Connerly wants the ACRI's ballot initiatives to enforce the precise language of the Civil Rights Act. But to the average person, the term "affirmative action" connotes specific diversity goals, not a general antidiscrimination statute. It's a language game conservatives play well, and Connerly is no exception. "The more you can say ‘affirmative action' and ‘equal-opportunity programs' in the ballot language, the better chance you have of winning," says Shanta Driver. "The more the question is posed as ‘preferences,' the better chance the Connerly people have of winning. There's a real [debate] about how you pose questions, a real language fight."This language fight has already landed one of Connerly's local proxies in hot water. During the 2006 Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, the United States District Court found that the Michigan chapter of the ACRI engaged in "systematic voter fraud" by telling voters that they were signing a petition supporting affirmative action. (Ultimately, since the court found that "the MCRI appears to target all Michigan voters by deception without regard to race," it was not found to be in violation of the Voting Rights Act.) And there is credible evidence the ACRI used similar tactics during 2008's five-state signature-gathering drive for the Super Tuesday initiative.With signature gathering complete in all five states, the stakes have remained high. Connerly charges that "union thugs" were being paid to prevent his people from circulating petitions in Missouri. But opponents from a broad-based coalition called We Can Missouri say they were only conducting voter education.The group Colorado Civil Rights Initiative, meanwhile, faces similar charges. It turned in 129,000 signatures in support of the anti-affirmative-action ballot initiative in the state, almost double the required number. But the validity of more than half of those signatures is now being challenged in court. Its opponents would need to prove about 53,000 are false to have the petition disqualified. "We are challenging signatures like ‘Jesus' and ‘the Lord Jesus' as obviously not current registered voters in Colorado," says Craig Hughes.Connerly, for his part, claims no real knowledge of the alleged fraud, saying that circulators are paid per petition-nothing to do with his campaign. For canvassers, he says, "it's not a matter of what they believe, it's a matter of how much money can they get. … Any time you attach a profit to it, the [potential for fraud] is unavoidable."With all the back-and-forth bickering, the blood feud between Connerly and his opponents has no end in sight. Even as November nears, it seems clear that no matter the outcome in those five states, neither side will accept it quietly.With Connerly's side claiming to have gathered enough signatures, Driver is preparing a lawsuit in Arizona to keep the initiative off the ballot there. In Colorado, Craig Hughes's lawsuit to have Connerly's signatures nullified also proceeds. And in Nebraska, David Kramer, the former chairman of the Nebraska Republican party, is leading a bipartisan measure to challenge the validity of the signatures gathered.To Connerly, however, they are just delaying the inevitable: "The notion that we can use race as the entry point to solve social problems-that's dead," he says, looking past me, his eyes fixed on the hotel's patio. "And I'm not talking just race preferences. Race-based decision-making is dead."