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Race In America: Fairness Or Folly?

Ward Connerly brings his campaign against affirmative action to a wider stage just as Clinton rolls out a new set of race initiatives

By Eric Pooley/Sacramento

Time cover

(TIME, June 23) -- As soon as Ward Connerly entered the hearing room in California's state Capitol one evening last month, a young black man rushed up and grabbed his hand. But this was no friendly welcome. "Mr. Connerly, you're a traitor," the man said angrily, gripping hard and not letting go. "You're an embarrassment to your race."

Connerly wrenched free and told the man to "have a nice day." For the courtly black businessman who led California's campaign to end race- and gender-based affirmative-action policies--first at the University of California, where he is on the board of regents, then throughout state and local government and education, with the 1996 ballot initiative known as Proposition 209--such epithets are commonplace. But the young man in the Capitol was especially upset because the initial consequences of the university's new race-neutral policy were just being felt. In the first year without affirmative action at U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall law school, black admissions has dropped 81%, Hispanic admissions 50%. UCLA's law school reports a similar decline.

While many Americans recoil from the idea of a return to monochromatic college campuses, Connerly does not. "We have used racial preferences to prop up a system of artificial diversity," he says, "instead of doing the heavy lifting that leads to real equality." He sees some good news in the bad. Though California's new policy doesn't take effect for undergraduates until next spring, minority applications to elite universities such as Berkeley and UCLA are already dropping--while black enrollment is up at second-tier campuses like San Diego and Riverside. This suggests that the new policy won't shut minorities out of the system so much as bump them down to less prestigious schools in a "cascade effect" that will leave only the most competitive campuses overwhelmingly white and Asian. Connerly calls this a "self-correcting policy" that sends black undergraduates to colleges where they can best compete. But his point has been lost in the angry din being raised around the country. "We're seeing a radical revival of apartheid," thundered Jesse Jackson, who is working hard to fuel a backlash against Connerly's crusade, a backlash that is also being encouraged by Bill Clinton.

"It's not a good thing if we resegregate higher education," the President told TIME. So Clinton chose a commencement ceremony at U.C. San Diego last Saturday to deliver to the nation his much hyped address on racial reconciliation. In the days before the speech, Connerly launched a pre-emptive media campaign: a new poll showing strong public support for ending race- and gender-based preferences, and a radio spot, broadcast in San Diego, Washington and two other cities, in which Connerly asks Clinton to promise that "government will stop using race to decide who gets a job or who gets into school." But last weekend in San Diego, Clinton warned that plummeting minority enrollments at state schools would "leave it to the private universities to do the public's work." Afterward, when reporters needed a pithy quote from the other side, Connerly was available. As a U.C. regent, he had been sitting on the dais with Clinton. Then Connerly jumped into a plane and flew to Washington to debate Jackson on Meet the Press. "There's nothing like an attack by the President," Connerly says, "to help you get your message out."

For Connerly, the President's speech couldn't have been better timed. Connerly is on the cusp of being a national figure. Californians speculate about his political ambitions (he claims to have none), and the Wall Street Journal calls him one of the G.O.P.'s "two most prominent black conservatives." (Oklahoma Representative J.C. Watts is the other.) He's learning how hard it is to take an issue nationwide. The civil rights leaders, newspaper columnists and editorial cartoonists who scorned him last year--lumping him together with former Klansman David Duke, calling him an "Uncle Tom," a "lawn jockey," a "front man for the white right"--badly underestimated the man. Even some detractors admit that Proposition 209, which the state Republicans backed and Californians voted for last November 54% to 46%, would not have won without him.

While the initiative weathers a court challenge, Connerly has been traveling the country making powerful speeches and accepting awards from conservatives who hail him as a hero fighting for his vision of a color-blind society, a black man whose rags-to-riches story suggests that preferences aren't necessary for black achievement. He has been lobbying Newt Gingrich and other G.O.P. leaders to back an antipreference bill in Congress (maybe next year, says Gingrich) and helping groups who are organizing similar initiatives in six other states. But only one of those groups, an effort in Houston, has begun the arduous task of gathering qualifying signatures. To succeed, such groups need big money and plenty of troops; Connerly hopes Clinton's speech will attract both. The larger question, however, is whether Connerly's side can prevail in the national debate as America, which has been rolling back race- and gender-based affirmative action for years, decides whether it really wants to end all such programs--and what it will mean for the country if it does.

Today about 60% of white Americans oppose government efforts to help minorities; the same percentage of blacks favor them. But the public's attitude varies depending on how the survey questions are crafted. While a poll put out by Connerly last week found overwhelming support for "federal legislation prohibiting government discrimination and preferential treatment," a Gallup survey released the same week found that only 37% of whites and 12% of blacks favor a "decrease in affirmative action." In a California exit poll last year, 27% of those who voted for Proposition 209 said they supported affirmative action--even though they had just cast a ballot to eliminate it.

At the debate's core is the question of fairness: Is affirmative action state-sponsored discrimination or a still necessary step toward equality? The answer depends on one's experience of discrimination. Those who feel racism's sting and recall the country's systematic denial of black rights believe it's too soon to abandon the remedy. To remove all race- and gender-based affirmative action, says California assembly member Kevin Murray, chairman of the state's legislative black caucus, "is to tacitly authorize a system of preferences that benefits white males." This view is not confined to the left. "'Color-blind' is a cute word," says Representative Watts, who supports affirmative action, "but it has no meaning now. When you look at the number of blacks in FORTUNE 500 management, you know we have some work to do before we can even say we're close."

Connerly argues that the nation can move beyond its racial divide only by doing away with all race-based remedies; he favors affirmative-action programs based on economic need. "We've got to close the books on the past," he says, and "not give anyone lifetime membership in the Victims' Club of America because of what happened to their ancestors. I don't for a minute say that if you're black with kinky hair you have the same chance as a blue-eyed blond in America. But racial quotas and set-asides are tearing us apart. They breed white resentment and the suspicion of black inferiority, and they haven't kept pace with our multiethnic society." Connerly, who is of African, French, Irish and Choctaw descent, is married to an Irish-American woman; their son is married to a Vietnamese American. "What racial box on the university admission form is their child supposed to check?" asks Connerly.

At 58, Connerly is old enough to remember the days of Jim Crow, but the worst racism he encounters today, he says, is a "subtle patronization" from some whites. "I think part of our racial problem is that my fellow black Americans are so sensitive to the issue of racism that it almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," he says. "You look for it, and by golly, it's there--whether it's real or not."

As a self-made man, "Ward finds it insulting to think that any black person might need affirmative action to compete," says San Francisco lawyer William Bagley, an opponent of Connerly's on the university board of regents. "He didn't need it. He doesn't see why anyone else should."

Connerly's life, a Horatio Alger tale of an orphan's adversity, pluck and triumph, has an almost mythical value to his supporters. He was born in Louisiana, where his parents divorced when he was two (he hasn't seen his father since) and his mother died when he was four, leaving him in the care of her sister and brother-in-law Bertha and James Louis. At six, he moved with them to Bremerton, Wash.--a journey made difficult by segregation laws that shut them out of hotels, rest rooms and diners--and later to Sacramento, where Connerly's uncle worked in a lumberyard. As a child, Connerly found work running errands, helping a carpenter, hawking ice water to laborers. "I was a little hustler," he says with a chuckle.

His fortunes changed at the age of 12, when his grandmother, who had retained legal custody of him, moved him from the relative comfort of his uncle's home to what he calls "a desperate situation" at hers. His grandmother raised chickens and sold eggs, he says, but "on many days there was nothing to eat but sweet potato." Connerly fought back by taking a 27-hour-a-week job as a stock boy. He worked all through high school and college, paying his own way.

Because of the symbolism of Connerly's story, a stir was raised last month when a group of unnamed relatives claimed in the monthly San Francisco Focus that Connerly's youth was "very middle class." Said one: "There was no poverty. There were no chickens. Nobody sold eggs."

"A lie," Connerly says flatly, adding that the charges came from estranged kin who resent his success and disagree with his stand on affirmative action. His aunt Bertha Louis agrees, telling TIME that when Connerly left her house and moved in with his grandmother, "it was very, very rough going. What he says is true. And if his grandmother could rise from the grave, she would tell you the same thing." Louis says she walked into her mother's house one day in 1959 to find Connerly, then a freshman at American River Junior College, "sitting down in the kitchen cutting a piece of paste-board and putting it into his shoe. I said, 'What on earth--?' He said, 'The pavement's so hot.' He was covering these big round holes in the soles of his shoes so he could walk to college." His detractors, she says, "are just lyin' on him. It's jealousy and it's hatred, as low as you can get."

After two years at American River, where he was voted student-body president, Connerly enrolled at Sacramento State, where he won the honor again. On campus he courted Ilene Crews, a white freshman. Interracial relationships were rare, but as a campus leader, Connerly says, "I probably was viewed somewhat differently than most [blacks]." When the couple married in 1962, Crews' parents "were not thrilled, but they came around. We are very close now."

Two days after graduating, Connerly went to work as an urban-renewal trainee at the Sacramento redevelopment agency. It was the heyday of urban renewal, with state and federal funds flowing into cities, and Connerly quickly rose to a managerial position at the state department of housing and community development. While there he got a call from a young Republican assembly member who was about to become chairman of the housing committee. He offered Connerly a job as chief consultant. "You'll have a chance to put your fingerprints on housing policy in this state," said Pete Wilson. Connerly took the job and began an association with the future Governor that has served both men well. "He was just bright as hell," says Wilson. "He seemed to have an effortless understanding of what it took to succeed in a world where blacks weren't being afforded much opportunity."

Wilson often told Connerly that he should leave the safe haven of government and "go into business for yourself." Connerly already had. While still working for the state, he managed to build up a large portfolio of single-family homes, which he rented out. He and a partner bought and renovated a boarded-up apartment complex called Strawberry Manor and leased it to the Sacramento city housing authority. (A 1972 state investigation cleared him of conflict-of-interest charges.) After Wilson left Sacramento to run for mayor of San Diego, Connerly spent two years as a deputy director of the state department of housing. He then quit government for good, becoming a consultant specializing in guiding businesses through the housing and development regulations he had helped create. Connerly & Associates grew to a professional staff of 15. He won't disclose company earnings except to say they are "substantial."

Connerly has often been accused of benefiting from the minority-contracting policies that Proposition 209 eliminates, but these charges don't hold up under scrutiny.

He was accused of using minority status to land a $1.3 million contract with the California energy commission in 1989, before the state law requiring a 15% set-aside for minority contractors took effect. Connerly only disclosed his race when required. "I felt that it could be damaging to my business to become identified as a minority firm," he says. "You get pigeonholed, and people begin to think that you only got the business because you are a minority."

As California enters the Proposition 209 era, it will be up to Connerly to prove something he has been saying all along--that "a passion for fairness" motivates him, that he wants to help other minorities succeed the way he has. One merit-based proposal that deserves his consideration would offer automatic U.C. admission to the top 4% of the graduating class from each California high school. Connerly fears that it would "stack the deck" in favor of inner-city schools; Californians deserve a more thoughtful response than that. At a TIME Forum in the state Capitol last month, he softened his opposition to outreach programs that send college faculty members into low-performing schools to tutor and train teachers. Though he once condemned such efforts as "sneaky" attempts to skirt the law and boost minority enrollment, now he is willing to "modify the application of 209" to allow such programs. "We know there's a problem with black kids," he says. "How are we going to solve it unless we go into their neighborhoods?" But, he says, the programs, must not focus on a specific race. "Go into black schools as long as you're also going into white, Asian and Hispanic schools."

During the forum, a tense shoot-out between the warring factions, Connerly agreed to meet with opponents in the state legislature such as assembly member Murray to work on an outreach plan that both sides could live with. Then a remarkable thing happened. Some in the crowd--people who see Connerly as the devil himself--actually gave him a smattering of applause.

Clinton's Race Initiatives

-- A seven-member advisory panel to gather data and help "articulate the President's vision of racial reconciliation." Panelists include historian John Hope Franklin, former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, labor leader Linda Chavez-Thompson and Los Angeles lawyer Angela Oh.

-- Town meetings and other public events meant to help Americans confront the vexing issues of life in a multiethnic society.

-- A renewed debate about racial preferences. Most blacks support them; most whites are opposed--so where does the debate go from there?

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