WARD CONNERLY MAINTAINS he has simple reasons for campaigning to end affirmative action. “I’m not just fighting to end racial preferences—I’m fighting to alter the way people still see Black people as weak and lazy,” says Connerly, a Black real estate consultant who founded and chairs the anti-affirmative action American Civil Rights Institute. “People are rethinking race, and as they do, they’re having a hard time thinking that Black people whose ancestors overcame slavery can’t make it on their own. Because, let’s face it, at the end of the day, when we talk about affirmative action, we’re talking about Black people.”
Affirmative action supporters concede that during the last decade, Connerly has been successful at connecting with voters in California, Washington and Michigan as they’ve passed measures banning race- and gender-based “preference” programs. But they contend he’s done it by getting white citizens to act on their suspicions about the inferiority of people of color. “In Michigan, voters were being asked to give up a small modicum of white privilege, and they wouldn’t do it,” says Shanta Driver, national co-chair of By Any Means Necessary, a pro-affirmative action group known by its acronym BAMN. “They voted against integration.”
The debate over how and why California, Washington and especially Michigan voted to gut their affirmative action programs has intensified since Connerly announced last fall that he and his allies would be taking their crusade to as many as nine more states for the 2008 elections. While Connerly now says his team has narrowed the list to five—Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma—he still argues that it could be the last stand for affirmative action.
“I sense a certain resignation from many [affirmative action proponents] that they are going to lose,” Connerly says.
His opponents agree that the stakes are high. “They’re basically trying to dismantle the work and progress of the last 50 or 60 years,” says the Rev. Gill Ford, director of the NAACP’s Region IV, which includes Colorado, Missouri and Nebraska.
But Ford and other affirmative action proponents are hardly conceding defeat. They’re forming coalitions and working with veterans of the previous ballot battles to devise new strategies to beat Connerly. The focus, they say, should be on making sure voters understand what this fight is really about: whether public agencies should take steps to combat ongoing racial discrimination or simply let it fester.
Connerly has been trying to kill affirmative action nationwide since 1995, when as a University of California regent he led colleagues in voting to end the system’s consideration of race in admissions. In 1996, amid rising anti-immigration sentiment, Connerly and former California governor Pete Wilson successfully campaigned for passage of Proposition 209, which banned “discrimination” and “preferential treatment” on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin. At the time, it was reported that Connerly had earned more than $1 million through a state minority contracting program.
The measure passed with 54 percent of the vote, and it changed state education and business immediately. Black and Latino enrollment plunged at Berkeley and UCLA, the state’s prestigious public universities, while the Asian population shot up. Meanwhile, the state government not only dropped its procurement programs targeting women and people of color, but it also stopped tracking the numbers altogether.
In 1998, Connerly took the battle up the Pacific coast to Washington. Initiative 200 was worded almost identically to Prop. 209, and, in the less diverse northwestern state, it passed with 58 percent of the vote. When Connerly began gathering signatures for a similar measure in Florida in 2000, Gov. Jeb Bush called it “very divisive,” and fellow Republicans worried it would bring more Democrats to the polls in a key election year. Under the governor’s lead, officials at the state’s public university system jettisoned the use of race in favor of the Talented 20 Program, under which high school students in the top 20 percent of their graduating classes are automatically accepted to state schools. Connerly dropped his ballot campaign, and over the next eight years, the total enrollment of Latinos and Asians climbed, though the percentage of the student body that’s Black dropped from 14.4 to 13.8 percent.
Three years later, two U.S. Supreme Court rulings upheld a narrow, limited use of race in college admissions. But Jennifer Gratz, who was a plaintiff in one of the cases after the University of Michigan wait-listed her, didn’t want to let the matter rest. She contacted Connerly and asked for help in getting affirmative action prohibited in her home state. Connerly agreed, and in 2004, the two organized a drive called the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative to collect the 317,757 signatures needed to get another version of Prop. 209 on Michigan’s 2006 ballot. They ended up with more than 500,000.
Affirmative action supporters organized as well. Some of the state’s most powerful leaders and institutions—including top management at General Motors, the Catholic church, most major labor unions, university presidents and traditional civil rights organizations like the NAACP—formed a coalition called One United Michigan to raise money and campaign against the proposal.
A skirmish broke out over how the proposal would be worded on the ballot. Connerly and Gratz wanted it as close to the Prop. 209 language as possible. Affirmative action supporters argued that the words “preferential treatment” would bias voters in favor of the measure. Instead, they said, it should propose a ban on giving “consideration to” race, gender, color, ethnicity and national origin in education and state business. State officials disagreed and kept “preferential treatment.” The measure, known as Proposal 2, asked voters if the state constitution should “ban public institutions from using affirmative action programs that give preferential treatment to groups or individuals based on their race, gender, color, ethnicity or national origin for public employment, education or contracting purposes.”
Pollsters reported that more than half the state’s voters favored the ban, but as the November election approached, support appeared to drop. Both sides gave interviews and solicited editorials, though most of the state’s major newspapers ended up condemning Proposal 2. Both sides also poured money into advertising. Connerly says his team spent more than $2 million on the campaign before it was over, and One United Michigan poured $5 million into their effort.
Both Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Republican challenger Dick DeVos spoke out against the ban, and up through election day, polls predicted it could go either way. The ban ended up passing with 58 percent of the vote.
This spring, Connerly announced his next targets: Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma. Connerly said he and his allies analyzed the difficulty of getting constitutional amendments on the ballot in each state, the level of support they might have, the costs and fundraising possibilities and their affirmative action practices. For example, he says, the campaign in Colorado will likely be centered on college admissions, while Missouri’s will be focused on state contracting and Arizona’s on immigration.
Affirmative action proponents across the country say they’re ready. They’ve learned from the Michigan campaign that they have to fight for ballot language that clearly explains what “yes” and “no” votes mean.
“Here, the way the ballot language was phrased gave a lot of cover to whites,” said the Rev. Dan Krichbaum, executive director of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, an education and advocacy group. “It was phrased as if we live in a colorblind society and need to protect it.”
The linguistic fight is already raging in Missouri, where amendment language must be approved before petitions to get it on the ballot are circulated. Tim Asher, the former director of admissions at North Central Missouri College, submitted a proposed amendment that reads exactly like California’s Prop. 209. But the office of Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, a Democrat, changed it. The new version would ask if there should be a ban on “affirmative action programs designed to eliminate discrimination against, and improve opportunities for, women and minorities in public contracting, employment and education.”
Asher sued because, he says, the language isn’t clear and would confuse voters seeing it for the first time. Another suit, filed by a civil rights attorney on behalf of two political activists, charges that the language fails to explain that the amendment might raise questions about affirmative action programs based on disability, religion or veteran status. In mid-August, the two cases were consolidated and a court appearance was scheduled for September. The secretary of state’s office predicts that both challenges will be thrown out.
While affirmative action proponents agree that the ballot language is crucial, there’s much less unity over whether to lead the public conversation with race. One United Michigan spokesman David Waymire, a political consultant, said his team decided to downplay the debate about racism and center their campaign on the message that women would have the most to lose under a prohibition on affirmative action. Though a similar strategy had failed in California and Washington, Waymire said that from his experience, focus groups and market research suggested it would give One United Michigan the best chance to win.
“All of our research showed that the more you made it about race, the bigger the gap got,” he said.
Members of the coalition aggressively spread the word that a wide range of programs for women and girls—from the recruitment of female students into science and math fields to gender-specific health outreach campaigns—were imperiled by the ballot measure. It didn’t work. Waymire said voters simply acted on their racial bias. “No one who understood this issue rationally voted for the ban.”
“I think most people going into the campaign on the side of defeating Proposal 2 knew that might not happen, but I think most people were stunned by the margin of defeat,” added Krichbaum. “A significant degree of racism reared its head. I think for many years, whites have been upset by the tools used to fight the legacy of slavery and racism, and this became a tool to express that.”
Other analysts attributed the outcome to economic insecurity. Reeling from the collapse of the auto industry and other businesses reliant on manufacturing, Michigan has for the last couple of years competed with Mississippi for the highest unemployment rate in the nation. But a county-by-county analysis shows no correlation between joblessness and support for Proposal 2.
It’s a different story with race.
Statewide, Michigan is about 78 percent white, 14 percent Black, 4 percent Latino and 2 percent Asian, with most people of color concentrated in a handful of urban areas. For example, while Wayne County, home of Detroit, is less than 50 percent white, a handful of other counties are nearly 98 percent white. Wayne County was one of only three counties where a majority voted against Proposal 2. The other two, Washtenaw and Ingham, include the state’s two largest universities and have among the state’s most diverse communities. In general, across the rest of Michigan, the whiter the county, the higher the support for the ban.
BAMN’s Driver is among those who believe it was a mistake to de-emphasize race, noting that while most women voted against the proposal, a majority of white women didn’t. “I think playing up the white women angle did nothing to mobilize white voters against the proposal, and it failed to motivate Black voters,” Driver said. “It’s true that people don’t like to talk about race, but in defining affirmative action, it’s essential to talk about it—if only so that when people are in that voting booth, it’s clear to them what this is really about.”
Driver maintains that even people who say they oppose affirmative action shift their position when they understand its implications. “When it’s pointed out that without affirmative action there would be a drop in Black students in college, they’re for it,” she said.
But the coalition against Proposal 2 didn’t have the time or resources to wage a full educational campaign, Waymire insists. “We were hired to do a campaign, not change a culture,” he said. “From a political consulting standpoint, it’s very difficult. A central question in this state and this country is what to do about race, and most people want to sweep it under the rug.”
Not Connerly. He gleefully interpreted the Michigan vote as a sign that he could take his campaign for color-blindness elsewhere. “Michigan is a bellweather state—it is one of the bluest of the blue, electing mainstream Democrats,” he says.
Eva Paterson, founder and president of the Equal Justice Society, a San Francisco-based social justice and public policy organization, said that One United Michigan’s analysis was right in one respect—most white voters don’t support programs they perceive as giveaways to people of color. The key, she believes, is in devising a campaign that emphasizes expanding access to resources rather than redistributing them. “If you can get white people to think they’re not giving up something, but they’re sharing something, you can win,” she said.
The NAACP’s Ford says traditional civil rights groups have studied the Michigan campaign and are now making plans for countering Connerly’s efforts. They’re already planning education efforts. For example, he says, voters need to know that women have been the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action programs. But he also wants to make sure they understand that it’s fundamentally about combating very real racial disparities in education and employment. “It’s one thing to say that discrimination is wrong,” he said, “but what do you do to rectify it? Is rectifying it really ‘preferential treatment?’ You can’t get past the race issue.”