As with most things concerning the issue of race in America, the incident between Henry Louis gates and the Cambridge, Massachusetts Police Department, everything was and is about individual and group perceptions. And perhaps no single issue with regarding race illustrates this more than the hot button topic of affirmative action.
Depending on one’s personal views, the policy is either a remedy to redress the socioeconomic inequalities wrought by the historical practice of systemic, institutional, and social discrimination, or a means to further polarize race relations by way of reverse-discrimination. And why should one particular view trump another? Who’s to say which view is valid? Does choosing a side equate sanctimony?
To explore this notion of perspective, Beyond The Political Spectrum interviewed Ward Connerly, the former University of California Regent, and spearhead of a movement to do away with affirmative action as a federally-supported policy.
What makes Connerly’s view all the more controversial—at least to those who oppose him—is that fact that Connerly is an African-American, although he himself frown on racial and/or ethnic-based labels. With consideration to Connerly’s time and space, Beyond The Political Spectrum limited the online interview with Connerly to four questions in regards to his position and opposition to his position.
Former University of California and chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute (ACRI), Ward Connerly. The ACRI is a non-profit organization created to oppose race- and gender-based programs in government hiring and university admissions.
BTPS: Mr. Connerly, I and the rest of America have read or heard a lot about you, including praises from your supporters and aspersions by your critics. In your own words, can you tell Beyond The Spectrum what is your ultimate goal(s) as to Affirmative Action as a public policy, and what motivates you in your goals, both philosophically and personally.
CONNERLY: When discussing “affirmative action,” language is of vast importance, primarily because affirmative action comes in many forms, some of which are admirable – requiring public agencies to open their recruitment, employment, and admissions processes to the largest base of prospective applicants as possible, for example – and some of which are quite odious – applying different standards to applicants based on their “race,” gender and ethnicity or setting aside contracts based on those same factors.
Because you acknowledge no such distinction in your question, it is imperative that I make sure that you understand that my perspective about “affirmative action” differs based on how such policies and programs are structured. I am a proponent of trying to use the levers of government in an “affirmative” way to expand access to low- and moderate-income people and those who have never had a parent go to college, for example – socioeconomic “affirmative action,” if you will. On the other hand, I am opposed to contracts that are aside for “minority-owned” or female-owned businesses or admitting a black applicant to college who has only a “C” grade point average and 780 on the SAT but requiring a Chinese student to have an “A” average and an SAT score of 1480. Practices such as those that I have described that treat people differently have been acknowledged to be “race preferences” by the United States Supreme Court.
It is my objective to do all that I can in the years that remain available to me to eliminate distinctions, in the governmental sector, made between American citizens on the basis of their race, skin color, ethnicity, gender or national origin.
I am motivated by the fact that I am a man who was born in Leesville, LA in 1939 and who has experienced discrimination based on my identity, and I have always considered that unfair and irrational and not in the best interest of a society that professes to be an equal opportunity society.
One would hope that most individuals have something about which they believe strongly and to which they devote their lives. I believe strongly in what is called a “colorblind” government. None of us has a choice about whether we pay taxes or not. Thus, I believe that the government should not treat us differently in view of that circumstance. I am at an age in life in which I think carefully about how I want to use my time and what influence I want to have upon the world that I leave for my children, grandchildren and loved ones. I want them to have an equal chance, not one in which they are treated differently because their father was a “black” man or because two of them have a mother who is half-Vietnamese. That is the driving influence behind my actions.
BTPS: Granted, your aim is to get both the federal and state governments out of the affirmative action business (so to speak), wouldn't that leave the much larger private sector open to instituting or continuing the policy? In that event, would you champion the eradication of affirmative action in the private sector too?
CONNERLY: My objective is to get all government – federal, state, local and public universities as well as privates that use public funds – out of the business of discriminating against or granting “preferential treatment” in the guise of “affirmative action,” as I have defined it above.
I am a libertarian in many respects. Thus, my tolerance for private conduct of which I might disagree is high. Accordingly, I would not champion the eradication of “affirmative action,” however it might be defined, in the private sector.
BTPS: Despite having become the darling of political conservatives with your anti-affirmative action initiatives, The American Conservative magazine's September 2008 issue seemed to impugn your motives with regards to your drive to promote anti-affirmative action ballot initiatives, including innuendos of hypocrisy of your private consulting firm, Connerly and Associates, having benefited from being "registered with the state as a minority- and woman-owned business." To what do you attribute this revelation (as it were) to?
CONNERLY: During my lifetime, I have learned that no political ideology has a monopoly on being wrong. For example, when I led the effort to give equal health benefits to same-sex couples while serving as a Regent of the University of California, I assure you that I was not regarded as the “darling of political conservatives” by the many “conservatives.”
It is fundamentally flawed to view all “conservatives” as being alike. Some conservatives support affirmative action. Some use litmus tests and if you fail the test on specific issues, they seek to distance themselves from the individual whom they regard as being out of step. There are also those who believe that the author of the column that appeared in the issue of the American Conservative magazine to which you make reference had an agenda in writing his piece. I would also hasten to add, however, that American Conservative magazine is a small, struggling publication that is not in any way the voice of conservatives. The attitude conveyed by the author and the “innuendoes” he imparted are not shared by more mainstream conservative publications such as National Review and Weekly Standard.
More significantly, the claims asserted by the author of that article are inaccurate. First, Connerly & Associates, Inc. is not, nor has ever been, a firm “registered with the state as a minority- and woman-owned business.” This could have been verified. The fact that it was not casts considerable doubt on the good faith and credibility of the author. Second, the claim was made that I am a registered lobbyist. I have never been a lobbyist in my life. This, too, could have been verified. Third, it has been claimed that my firm and the American Civil Rights Institute are somehow doing the bidding of major construction interests. In fact, I have been inactive in my firm for over four years and ACRI receives less than three percent of its financial support from construction and/or real estate interests.
It is worth questioning why my motives for opposing race preferences are sometimes questioned, but the motives of those who support preferences are presumed to be noble. Moreover, why is the issue of motives even relevant? Assuming that either mine or those who oppose my position are foul, what bearing would this have on an issue that is raging throughout the nation, even at the level of the United States Supreme Court? There is almost the impression that if I were not “driving” this issue, it would somehow go away. In fact, however, “race” is always a contentious issue and those who oppose distinctions by the government on the basis of such a factor have history and the law on our side. Thus, our motives for wanting to advance the cause of equal treatment should not be questioned.
BTPS: It seems your working toward the dismantling of affirmative action policies is something of a top-down approach. Philosophically speaking, given the preponderance of socioeconomic inequalities found throughout many areas of society, wouldn't a more philosophically & politically unassailable tactic be to work from the bottom-up, working to create better public school educational programs, working with employers to limit discriminatory practices, and/or to work with established organizations that oppose your stance...and then eliminate affirmative action?
CONNERLY: There is a strong bias in your question that places the burden of equal treatment on a host of other factors: elimination of “socioeconomic inequalities,” elimination of employer discrimination, and gaining the support of other organizations that oppose my stance as a precondition to urging enforcement of the laws that command equal treatment for all citizens “without regard to race, sex, color or national ancestry,” which happens to be the requirement of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. There is also the implied acknowledgement in your question that “affirmative action” is more than equal treatment; it is remedial in nature, something that the Supreme Court is increasingly viewing with disfavor. Equal rights and equal justice are not “top-down” or “bottom-up” values; they are not contingent on other socioeconomic conditions. Having said that, I am actively involved on many fronts in an effort to assist those who need assistance in improving their economic conditions, but I feel no obligation to unilaterally correct social disparities as a prerequisite to the pursuit of the objective of equal treatment for all.
Without spending too much time on Connerly’s view, even if one disagrees with his position, one must be impressed with both the eloquence by which he is outlines his position, as well as his overall goal of eliminating racial distinctions. Although in principle, I totally agree with his view that the best qualified students and job applicants should be the ones hired selected for slots and positions, can one truly hope to “eliminate distinctions?” Realistically-speaking, in all but the rarest of situations, our very names convey our ethnicities as well as our genders. And given how we as groups and individuals see ourselves in relation to our individual and group pasts, our collective experiences, and our sense of solidarity, is it even possible to eliminate the nuances of race- (or gender- for that matter) based identity? Lastly, how much sense does it make to allow--assuming that Connerly is successful in eliminating affirmative action--a segregated system of preferences in the private sector, while prohibiting them in the government sector? The simple matter is that even if people aren't allowing one another a non-competitive edge based on race or gender, they will invariably find another reason to favor one individual over another...perceived competency, the ability to dribble or throw a ball, manufactured charisma, one's alma mater, a mutual love of a particular sports teams...the reasons are potentially endless. Despite Connerly’s laudable goal of eliminating race-based distinctions in government and education, one can literally drive several trucks between his perceptions and ideas of what and how affirmative action should be and what the reality is for many people on the ground as it were; one can spend endless hours listening to those individuals of color who have war stories—similar to those black males who can tell them, a la Professor Gates’ experience—of how they did not get the position they were qualified for (all other factors being equal) due to the hue of their skins.
As with most issues in America, too many people are too quick to wed themselves to a particular structured, in some cases rigid political ideology. This dynamic tends to create a sense of allegiance to a particular ideology rather than to the search for meaningful answers, or to real solutions that offer a hope of real promise. In Connerly's case, he identifies with being a libertarian (although I suspect that he perceives his adherence to that particular ideology to be flexible). In the case of others, its being liberal, conservative, moderate, or what have you. In the worse scenario, adopting an ideologically-slanted view of an issue tends to forge a mindset of equating one's view with being "right," as exemplified by the aforementioned conservative commentator Michelle Malkin, who apparently has never met an ideal outside of conservatism she liked; one can only pity such a narrow view.
In an ideal world, race would not matter in employment, in education, and in encounters with the police. However, given the realities of an imperfect world and our individual perceptions, it does matter...whether we want to admit it or not. Faking indignation at that fact doesn't change its reality. Wanting to believe the best of America's promise in relation to its past doesn't erase perceptions in those who hold opposing views. For individuals like Connerly, the notion of "Civil Rights" is predicated on the idea that everyone should be treated equal, despite race. For many blacks and others who adhere to the traditional application of the idea, it implies the notion of cut us some slack...haven't we been through enough already?
With regards to race, for most of us, perception is the only "reality" that matters.