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Affirmative action era over, foe says

Times Staff Writer

As Ward Connerly sees it, the demise of affirmative action in America is fast approaching.

Buoyed by the victory this month of the Michigan ballot measure banning racial preferences in public education and hiring, the former University of California regent is ready to take his crusade to the rest of the nation.

Connerly talks enthusiastically of an “anti-affirmative action wave washing over America” that will wipe out the race-based preferences used for decades to help African Americans, Latinos and other disadvantaged ethnic groups.

“I think the end is at hand for affirmative action as we know it,” he says.

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For his next target, the conservative activist is considering sponsoring a ballot measure in one or more states, including Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Missouri or South Dakota. “We don’t have to go to every state if we can get a critical mass of seven or eight states,” he says.

Connerly, who is of African American, Native American and Caucasian heritage, has been fighting race-based preferences since the mid-1990s, a role that has won him fame in some quarters, infamy in others. He argues that no one in America should receive preference in education, jobs or government contracts because of skin color or gender.

Connerly, who grew up in the Sacramento area and runs a consulting business near the Capitol, was appointed to the UC Board of Regents by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in 1993. Connerly casts himself as an anti-establishment libertarian fighting for racial equality.

In 1996, he helped lead the campaign for Proposition 209 in California, which eliminated affirmative action in public education, hiring and contracts. He supported a similar ballot measure that was approved by voters in Washington state in 1998. Florida, facing the threat of a similar initiative, changed its college admissions policies in 2000.

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When Connerly’s 12-year term on the UC Board of Regents expired early last year, he said he was tired and needed a break. But following knee-replacement and prostate cancer surgery, he has come back at the age of 67 energized to tackle what he sees as the inequity of affirmative action.

“I won’t retire until my toes curl up,” he says.

In Michigan, Connerly sponsored Proposal 2 with Jennifer Gratz, a former student who sued the University of Michigan in 1997 over its use of racial preferences in admission but lost when a narrowly divided U.S. Supreme Court sided with the school.

Connerly and his allies in Michigan faced formidable opposition.

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The measure was opposed by Democratic and Republican leaders, labor unions, the Catholic Church, major media outlets and the university. Former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) also came out against it.

“It was a battle royal,” Connerly said in an interview at his Sacramento office. “The opposition pulled out all the stops.”

Among those who endorsed the measure was the Ku Klux Klan. Connerly added to the controversy when he said of the endorsement: “If the Ku Klux Klan thinks that equality is right, God bless them. Thank them for finally reaching the point where logic and reason are being applied instead of hate.”

Connerly later issued a statement to clarify his remarks, noting that he had always disdained the KKK and that he hoped the group would “move beyond its ugly history.”

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In the end, Michigan voters easily approved Proposal 2 on Nov. 7 by a margin of 58% to 42%.

Connerly has long antagonized many black leaders with his views and his ability to attract the spotlight.

He acknowledges that a white person expressing the same ideas would be branded a racist.

He calls his ballot initiatives civil rights measures and named his organization the American Civil Rights Initiative.

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His group receives funding from conservative groups, such as the Sarah Scaife Foundation, and from individual donors whom he did not identify for fear that it would expose them to charges of racism.

Some African American leaders see Connerly as a sell-out acting at the behest of his conservative sponsors.

They maintain that affirmative action, which began in the 1960s, is an essential step in helping blacks, Latinos and Native Americans overcome generations of discrimination that have left them at a disadvantage in obtaining an education or a job.

“I am inclined to see him as an opportunist, someone who is supported by wealthy backers and is primarily interested in protecting the privileged, not the underprivileged,” said Darnell Hunt, a professor of sociology and director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA.

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Hunt and other critics say the effects of Connerly’s efforts can be seen this year at UCLA, where the freshman class has about 100 African Americans, the fewest in decades.

“He has set us back 30 years in terms of public education,” Hunt said.

But Connerly says that he is his own man and passionately argues that affirmative action is a misguided program that is fundamentally unfair and stigmatizes successful blacks who can succeed without it. And the role of public universities, he says, is not to provide opportunities for students but to produce a skilled workforce.

Connerly acknowledges that Proposition 209 has reduced the number of African Americans admitted to some UC campuses but says the real problem for blacks is not the lack of race preferences.

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One reason for the decline in enrollment, he says, is the desire of many black students to attend black colleges, where they can experience being in the majority. Responsibility also lies with African American parents who do not value education or do not push their children to go to university, he says.

In addition, he says, some black community high schools that are run by black administrators do a poor job of preparing students for college.

Connerly said he favors government financial assistance to low-income students of all races, particularly those who are the first in their families to attend college.

Connerly said the overwhelming victory of Proposal 2 in Michigan at the same time that the state voted largely Democratic in other contests was a sign that anti-affirmative action measures could prevail anywhere in the country.

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Even as he pushes ahead with his plans for another initiative measure, he is optimistic that the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 2003 affirmed limited consideration of race in admissions, will ban affirmative action in the next five or six years.

Two cases that could provide an opportunity for the court to rule on racial preferences are scheduled for a hearing in December.

“If I were a regent or a college administrator and I saw the anti-affirmative action wave washing over America, I would have to take notice and say, ‘We better do something about our policies,’ ” he said. “More than I have ever felt, we are witnessing the end of an era.”

richard.paddock@latimes.com

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