Affirmative re-action

Times Staff Writer

Intent on dismantling affirmative action, activists in five states have launched a coordinated drive to cut off tax dollars for programs that offer preferential treatment based on race or gender.

The campaign aims to put affirmative action bans on the November ballot in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma. The effort is being organized by California consultant Ward Connerly, who has successfully promoted similar measures in California, Michigan and Washington.

Supporters of affirmative action say the initiatives will be hard to block, given that Connerly has a proven ability to raise funds and persuade voters, even in more liberal states.


“They’ve targeted states where there’s a white majority electorate and a vocal, if small, extreme anti-immigrant right wing,” said Shanta Driver, who runs By Any Means Necessary, a coalition that defends affirmative action. In such states, she said, “it’s extremely difficult for us to win.”

Connerly’s campaign -- which he calls Super Tuesday for Equality -- could also get a boost if the presidential ballot includes an African American or a woman. That would help him make the case, he said, that the playing field is level and minorities no longer need a hand up.

In most states, Connerly has until spring or summer to collect enough signatures to put the measures on the ballot. His allies have already submitted more than 140,000 signatures in Oklahoma. Petitions are circulating in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri and Nebraska. (The number of required signatures varies from about 76,000 in Colorado to about 230,000 in Arizona.)

If successful, the ballot measures would ban a broad range of programs designed to overcome the nation’s legacy of racism and discrimination.

One such program, in Tucson, treats minority- and female-owned companies as the low bidders for some construction contracts, even if their proposals come in as much as 7% higher than a bid from a firm owned by a white male rival. Academic mentoring targeted at specific groups, such as female engineering majors or Latina teens, would also be banned. The University of Colorado would have to cancel or redefine more than 100 scholarships because they award funds based on gender or race.

As he has in the past, Connerly is promoting the ballot measures as “civil rights initiatives.”


The wording may differ slightly from state to state, but in general the measures say: “The state shall not discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to any group or individual on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin. . . . “

Opponents say that’s misleading because it doesn’t explicitly say that affirmative action would be banned.

“What Ward Connerly is banking on -- and it’s a sad thing -- is a lack of information among the public,” said the Rev. Gill Ford, a regional director of the NAACP.

The debate may also become entangled in immigration politics.

Arizona, Colorado and Oklahoma recently passed tough laws aimed at stopping illegal immigrants from holding jobs or receiving government benefits. Missouri is weighing similar measures. Nationally, debate rages about illegal immigrants’ efforts to get driver’s licenses and pay in-state tuition.

A public angry at mostly Latino illegal immigrants may be in no mood to listen to arguments about a need for racial preferences.

“Many topics have the ability to dominate public attention this year,” said Arizona state Rep. Ben R. Miranda, a Democrat leading the opposition to Connerly. “We may not have enough time to educate the public.”


In 2006, supporters of affirmative action made a strong -- and well-funded -- stand against a Connerly-sponsored ballot measure in Michigan. Republicans and Democrats, union leaders and business executives, women’s groups, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and the Roman Catholic Church all spoke out against the initiative. Still, it passed with 58% support. Voters also passed the affirmative action ban by substantial margins in Washington in 1998 and in California in 1996, when it was on the ballot as Proposition 209.

Connerly, who is of black, white and Native American heritage, began fighting against racial preferences as a member of the University of California Board of Regents in the mid-1990s. He has said he came to the issue after meeting with a white couple whose son had been rejected from several University of California medical schools; they believed less-qualified minority students had an unfair edge in admissions. A land-use consultant by training, Connerly now devotes himself to anti-affirmative- action campaigns.

Even after a decade, the effect of his initiatives in California and Washington is not clear-cut. Minority enrollment at public universities plunged at first but has since rebounded except at a few of the most elite campuses.

In the economic sphere, a California Department of Transportation study last year found that based on the number of businesses owned by women and minorities, such companies should be getting 19% of state transportation contracts. In fact, their share has amounted to 11%.

To defeat Connerly’s ballot measures, his foes must use such statistics to make the case that American society is still riddled with racism and discrimination.

That’s a message voters may not want to hear. “We’d all like to think it’s hunky-dory,” said David B. Oppenheimer, a professor at Golden Gate University law school.


Significant disparities in income among races exist in all five states Connerly is targeting, with Asians on top, then whites, then Latinos, then blacks. The exception to that order is Arizona, where blacks earn more than Latinos.

In Colorado, the median household income for whites is about $55,000; for African Americans, it’s about $35,000. In Nebraska, the figures are $47,000 for whites, $37,000 for Latinos and $28,000 for blacks, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Nationally, the median net worth for a white, non-Latino family is $120,900; for minority families, it’s $17,100.

Many opponents of racial preferences say these disparities can best be addressed through aid based on economic need, not race. Carl Cohen, who teaches philosophy at the University of Michigan, says he supports mentoring programs, financial support, even preferential college admissions for the economically disadvantaged. “But to do it on the basis of the color of your skin, or the country where your grandfather happened to be born -- what the hell does that have to do with anything?” he said.

In response, Oppenheimer mentions a study published a few years ago in the American Journal of Sociology. Researchers sent black and white men with nearly identical resumes to apply for hundreds of entry-level jobs. In some cases, the men were instructed to say they had spent 18 months in prison on a felony drug conviction. The results: Whites with a criminal record were more likely to be called back than blacks with no record.

“Put yourself in the shoes of a black teenager who has to confront the reality that a white ex-con gets a racial preference over him” in the job market, Oppenheimer said. “That’s the racial preference that Ward Connerly should be worried about.”


African Americans, he points out, make up 12% of the workforce. Yet they’re only 3% of the chief executives, 5% of the medical scientists and 5% of the lawyers.

Connerly responds that overt discrimination should be punished by the courts. But to presume that every minority needs special treatment is demeaning, he said. To make that point, he has turned to local activists who say they can testify to the corrosive effects of racial preference.

The Missouri campaign will be run by Tim Asher, former admissions director at North Central Missouri College. The two-year school offered full scholarships to students from underrepresented groups -- basically, “anyone but white people,” Asher said. It fell to him, he said, to explain to impoverished white students that “they weren’t qualified because of the color of their skin.”

Colorado campaign director Valery Pech Orr is well-known for filing a suit after she and her husband, who are white, lost a construction contract to a minority-owned business under federal affirmative action law. During more than a decade of litigation, Orr said, she was urged to register the family company as female-owned to take advantage of affirmative action. She refused: “It was an insult. Just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I’m disadvantaged. What about my brains? My talent? My competitive spirit?”

The Supreme Court made clear that affirmative action is not a long-term solution to racial disparities.

In 2003, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote: “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary.”


Analysts say Connerly’s five-state strategy could help speed up that timetable.

“This is a perfect way to call attention to the issue and suggest that there’s a broad base of support” for ending affirmative action, said Daniel HoSang, a political scientist at the University of Oregon who studies race and politics. “It’ll influence the debate. Clearly, it will.”