(1939 - )
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts - April 6, 1998
Ward Connerly is the most prominent leader of the drive to eliminate affirmative action policies in the United States. A Republican businessman of mixed-race heritage, Connerly gave little attention to the issue of racial preferences until 1993, when he was appointed to the Board of Regents of California's public university system. Connerly was approached by the parents of a young white man who was rejected by one of the state's medical schools. Connerly investigated, and decided that California's practice of affirmative action in education amounted to "reverse racism."
On matters of race, Connerly's libertarian views have made him a controversial figure. His opponents have labeled him an "Uncle Tom" and "the most hated black man in America." His supporters regard him as "a principled hero."1
Connerly helped lead an effort in California to pass Proposition 209, a ballot initiative approved in 1996 banning the consideration of race, ethnicity or gender in hiring, contracting, college admissions and state programs. He also co-founded the American Civil Rights Institute, an organization devoted to ending affirmative action across the country. Connerly's campaign succeeded in a few states. Voters passed measures similar to Proposition 209 in Michigan, Washington, and Nebraska, while in Florida the legislature rolled back racial preference policies.
Affirmative action is the practice of considering personal characteristics such as race, ethnicity, or gender when making decisions about applicants for a job, a contract or enrollment in school. Supporters of the policy say the disadvantages caused by historic discrimination justify these attempts to increase the representation of women and minorities in education and the workplace. As President Lyndon Johnson said in a speech at Howard University in 1965, "You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying, 'You are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe you have been completely fair."2
Ward Connerly opposes affirmative action out of what he calls a "passion for fairness." He believes race-based remedies only prolong America's racial divisions and inequities.3 In his memoir, Creating Equal, Connerly says race is "a scar" in America that he first saw as a toddler in the segregated South. He yearns for race consciousness to dissolve in America's melting pot, but without government turning up the heat. "Left to their own devices, I believe Americans will merge and melt into each other. This is as it should be," he writes.4
Ward Connerly was born in the western Louisiana town of Leesville. His father left the family when Ward was 2 years old; the boy's mother died when he was 4. Connerly was raised by relatives in California. He first lived with a working-class aunt and uncle in a primarily black section of Sacramento. Connerly credits them with teaching him the values of hard work and self-respect. At 12, he moved in with his maternal grandmother, who struggled to make ends meet. Some of Connerly's relatives have said that, in later life, Connerly exaggerated the depth of his childhood poverty in Sacramento for political effect. It is a charge Connerly vehemently disputes.
Connerly's ethnic heritage is a mix of Irish, black, French and Choctaw Indian, but he identifies himself as black "because blackness is an experience and others have forced that experience upon me."5 He attended American River Junior College and then Sacramento State College, graduating with a BA in political science in 1962. A year later, he married a white classmate, Ilene Crews. It was a time when mixed-race couples were still a relative rarity in the U.S. The couple had two children.
In 1964, Connerly was drawn to Republican politics by GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater's devotion to free markets and free-enterprise views. Connerly worked as a housing consultant to state Sen. Pete Wilson, then started his own consulting and public housing development company. He ran it for more than two decades and became a millionaire. When Wilson was elected governor of California, he appointed Connerly to the Board of Regents.
Connerly's crusade against affirmative action has made him an icon to the conservative right. William F. Buckley Jr. called him "the high priest of equal treatment, and the targeted enemy of the preference brigade."6 Connerly has been accused, as a black businessman, of benefitting from the very minority-contracting policies that he attacks. But Time magazine journalist Eric Pooley reports that "these charges don't hold up under scrutiny."7
In a front-page profile, New York Times writer Barry Bearak described Connerly as an activist driven by principle, an "extravagantly patriotic" man who says he silently recites the Pledge of Allegiance and parts of the Declaration of Independence every day. Connerly says the harsh battles he's endured over affirmative action have only made him more dedicated to his country. "My fight against race preferences has sharpened my appreciation for the principles that are at the core of the American experiment," Connerly writes in his memoir. "I feel more fully a citizen now – more part of this nation – than ever before in my life."8
Connerly gave this speech at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government before a standing-room-only crowd. The forum's moderator instructed the audience to respect Connerly, a controversial conservative speaking on a predominantly liberal campus. According to the Harvard campus newspaper, many students were more offended by remarks made introducing Connerly than by the speaker himself. Government professor Harvey C. Mansfield described Connerly as belonging in the company of "the greatest black thinkers" and noted that such thinkers, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, often disagreed. When Connerly took the podium he politely reproached Mansfield for suggesting that his skin color should be a factor in a public policy debate. "It should not be relevant," Connerly said.9
It is a great honor to be here in one of the nation's intellectual capitals – one of the two intellectual capitals, the other being my alma mater, American River Junior College. [laughter] I never thought that I would be able to overcome the obstacles of being born in Leesville, Louisiana – orphaned at four, and growing up in the Heights, Del Paso Heights, and being able to come here and visit with some of the best minds in the world to share a perspective. W. C. Fields often said, "Start each day with a laugh, and get it over with."
And it prompts me to remember the story of Gretchen Alexander as I talk about overcoming obstacles. And Gretchen Alexander was sightless, but she never let that stand in her way of enjoying life's experiences. She could play golf, swim, softball. Great at archery. And she was lecturing one of her high school classes and a student asked, "Is there anything that you won't do?" And she said, "Yes, I won't sky dive; it would scare the hell out of my dog." So I'm not going to let any obstacles stand in my way.
I want to get right to the introduction, because candidly I have a problem with the introduction, with all due respect, professor. And my problem with the introduction goes to the heart of what my reason for being in this whole movement is. And that is the presumption that my skin color should be relevant in a public policy debate. It should not be relevant.
And I mean no disrespect to him. He is positioning the issue the way the public seems to portray it. And that is that somehow I am out of step from the black establishment because of the views that I hold. I would submit to you that if you find 50 black people you will probably find 50 variations of opinions. It just seems that on some issues there is more coalescing around certain points of view than others. But, I dare say, you would not find any great differences between us than you would find among others on issues as well.
And I really hope, I really hope with every fiber of my being that I will live to see the day when that kind of introduction would be totally unnecessary. That no one would have to invoke the question of my race, whatever the hell that is, or my skin color in relation to a position that I am espousing.
That, my friends, is why I have taken upon myself to say to my nation, "Let's confront this, folks!" Let's confront it, because you're putting me and others like me – and I don't mean 58 and bald – into a little box. You're herding us into a box and the expectation is that we're going to stay within that box with respect to how we conduct ourselves. And all my life I have defied operating within the box.
The question arises over and over again: Why is this black man leading this effort to eliminate affirmative action in a state like California? Let me kind of try to respond to this – throw away the script – and respond to you as candidly as I can, why I, as a fellow American, have taken upon myself to converse with you, my fellow Americans, about an issue that I think goes to the core of who we are as a people. Why we're here in this place and time, in this great nation, trying to perfect this experiment that we call democracy.
People who have come here from different parts of the globe, some born here, different experiences, different cultures, different sexual orientation, disabilities, different races – however we define that – different ethnic backgrounds. How do we forge this – all these differences – into one nation, without the divisible parts? Without any presumptions about our abilities, or the things to which we can aspire? How do we do this?
I was sentenced to an unpaid twelve-year term on the Board of Regents in 1993. And all my life prior to that time, I had grown up believing in this American experiment that I just described to you. I believed as a political science student in those great 36 words in the Declaration of Independence – and you know them: about holding these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I grew up believing that.
I believed in Lincoln when he talked about our founders bringing forth on this nation – I'm not giving you the actual words; you know them. Conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. I honestly believed that stuff! And as a young student of the '60s, when the man after whom this great facility is named said on June 11, 1963, "Race has no place in American life and law," I believed that stuff! To the core of my being I came away from that period and time believing, as Dr. King said, that this nation would live out the true meaning of its creed and treat me as an individual – not judge me by what I am, but judge me by who I am. If I'm a rotten scoundrel, judge me accordingly. But at least let me prove to you that I'm a rotten scoundrel rather than your presuming that on the basis of some immutable traits.
And so it was that, as a regent, when I discovered that the University of California was really using different standards to admit people. We were classifying them on the basis of whether they're African-American, or Chicano, or Latino, or American-Indian, or Asian or white. We're making people fill out these silly little boxes and saying if you fill out this one these are the number of points that you get, if you fill out this one these are the number of points that you get. Based on the system of values that I brought to the university as a regent, I thought, "This is wrong. This is not what the experiment is."
Son you may disagree with me, but I felt that I had no choice but, as a fiduciary of the board of regents, to act according to that my beliefs, that this is wrong. And so I proposed that the regents abolish the consideration of race.
Now this was not a precipitous move. I had looked at the evidence and I saw that, in 1989, the number of black students who had applied to the University of California was 2191. In 1995, the number was about 2191. The number of Asians that had applied in 1989 was about 8,000. The number for a corresponding period was about 12,000. And so, I thought, something here is wrong. If the number of black students is flat over that period of time, with Affirmative Action, and the number of Asian students is going up, with all of our efforts basically to suppress their numbers, because we didn't want Berkeley to become all Asians, something is wrong.
And so it just seemed to me that if we as a university really want to do what's right, maybe we should think about a different way of doing this. Maybe we should really commit ourselves to finding out what's going on. Examine whether race is, in fact, "One of many factors." And as I began to expose the reality of what was happening, I say to you that race was not one of many factors. That was a big lie. Race was the factor. So, the choice at that point was, do I go back into my shell as a regent and pretend that I never knew those facts? Or do I proceed with what I think is right? The rest is history.
Having done that, there was an immediate response. People saying we were going to re-segregate the university. I knew differently, because anyone who was admitted to the University of California was guaranteed then, and is guaranteed now, a seat at the University of California. It may not be Berkeley; it may be San Diego or Davis or whatever – but no one is denied an opportunity on the basis of race, if you're eligible for admission to the University of California.
But there was a continuing outpouring from students and others, who really were more intent upon stirring up trouble than they were dealing with problems - to rescind the vote. Every meeting there were students protesting, "Rescind the vote! Rescind the vote!" And so the only way that it seemed to me that I could guarantee that this principle of treating all of our students equally would manifest itself throughout history in the state of California, would be to put it into the Constitution. And those 37 words are now in fact in the Constitution of the state of California: "The state shall not discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting." Simple. Direct. Clear. No hidden mysteries about those words. They're in the Constitution of California.
Now, this is not just about eliminating preferences, however. It's about dealing with the issue of race. Still the unfinished business - social and legal - of America. It's about race. It's about diversity as we call it. Students on campuses – and I've been to, like, 25 in the last three months. We have the diversity on campuses, but we don't have integration. Black students at Emory University are just as isolated as if they weren't at Emory University.
It's about people who are marrying. You know, Dr. King said he looked for the day when little black boys and little black girls would be holding hands. They're doing more than holding hands. They're getting married and raising families. But in too many parts of this nation, there are interracial couples who are still subjected to the hostility, the stares. It's about confronting this. Leave them alone! Let them enjoy their lives without the intrusions of a society that is passing judgment.
It's about people who happen to be gay, wanting to live their lives alone, without people bothering them. And that's a sensitive subject, but I believe in equality! And if you believe in equality, you do not diminish the dignity of another human being.
It's about dealing with those subjects of how we interact with our fellow man. And whether we're big enough to accept doing away with preferences, extending dignity to every person, without passing judgment ourselves on the value of that person.
And so I want to allow as much time as I can tonight for questions because I think that really is where we can move this dialogue forward and move it up the field.
But I want to leave you, as I provide my opening comments, with the essence of what this movement really is about: it's getting the American people, you among them, to accept the proposition that if this experiment is going to work none of us, none of us, can expect any different treatment than anybody else. And none of us should tolerate any different treatment of another human being. Because people who are not equal are not free. When your society forces you to check the box, and decides whether you win or lose in the competitions of life on the basis of the box that you check, your freedom is diminished. Because today it might be you, tomorrow it might be you – that doesn't quite match up with the matrix.
And if that's the kind of government we want, if that's the kind of society that we want, the experiment has failed. Let's call the game right now because it's failed. It doesn't work. It will not work if any of our citizens are allowed to be treated differently by their government on the basis of traits with which they are born.
Thank you. [applause]