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Fairness On the Ballot

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By George F. Will
Sunday, January 27, 2008

Come November, voters will decide on more than half a million federal, state and local officeholders and ballot initiatives. Ninety-nine percent of these decisions will matter less than will the five civil rights initiatives that might be on the ballots in Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Missouri.

If the initiatives qualify for those states' ballots, all probably will pass. But the initiatives must surmount ferocious opposition from defenders of racial preferences, such as the politicians who administer and benefit from Missouri's racial spoils system. The crux of the Missouri Civil Rights Initiative (MoCRI) would amend that state's constitution to say: "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."

Similar language has been approved by voters in California (in 1996), Washington state (1998) and Michigan (2006). California's initiative passed 55 percent to 45 percent, even though opponents outspent supporters 13 to 1. Washington's initiative won 58 to 42 against 10-to-1 spending. Michigan's initiative won 58 to 42, although supporters were outspent 5 to 1. Those spending disparities understate the initiatives' disadvantages, because in each state, opponents were assisted by the "diversity" industry that administers racial preferences in the public and private sectors.

Missouri law requires the secretary of state to draft a summary of an initiative, which appears on the ballot "in the form of a question using language neither intentionally argumentative nor likely to create prejudice either for or against the proposed measure." The following, not the MoCRI language quoted above, is what the state's Democratic secretary of state and Democratic attorney general proposed to put on the ballot:

"Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to: Ban affirmative action programs designed to eliminate discrimination against, and improve opportunities for, women and minorities in public contracting, employment and education; and allow preferential treatment based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin to meet federal program funds eligibility standards as well as preferential treatment for bona fide qualifications based on sex?"

Well. The phrase "affirmative action" came into vogue in the years after the 1976 Democratic platform endorsed "compensatory opportunity." That obfuscating phrase appeared immediately after the platform said "we must insure that all citizens are treated equally before the law." Advocates of affirmative action have long denied that it involves racial preferences. Now Missouri is insisting that a ban on such preferences would eliminate all affirmative action.

Ward Connerly, the man organizing this year's five initiatives to promote colorblind governance, disagrees. A California businessman and former member, for 12 years, of the University of California Board of Regents, he stresses that many affirmative action measures, such as outreach to recruit students and employees from economically disadvantaged and isolated groups, do not require racial preferences.

MoCRI supporters went to court, arguing that the two Democrats' "explanation" of their amendment is couched in language that is "convoluted, ambiguous and muddled" and is "prejudicial, conclusory and untrue." They said that banning racial discrimination in the form of racial preferences does not ban programs to eliminate discrimination. They noted that MoCRI does not "allow" preferential treatment; rather, it would not obstruct receipt of federal funds tied to federal requirements. And the secretary of state and the attorney general's "explanation" of MoCRI does not explain that MoCRI authorizes granting preferential treatment on the basis of age, disability or status as a veteran.

The judge largely sided with MoCRI's supporters, ordering this ballot language: "Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to: Ban state and local government affirmative action programs that give preferential treatment in public contracting, employment, or education based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin, unless such programs are necessary to establish or maintain eligibility for federal funding or to comply with an existing court order?" The two Democrats, aware that similar language has won landslides in three other states, are appealing the decision.

The conventions that govern America's racial discourse derive from the odious "one drop" rule. According to it, anyone with any admixture of black ancestry -- one drop of black "blood" -- is black. So, Connerly is an African American. One of his grandparents was of African descent, one was Irish, a third was Irish and American Indian, and the fourth was French Canadian. Two of the grandchildren of Connerly and his Irish wife have a Vietnamese mother. Are these grandchildren African Americans?

Will the superstitions surrounding race ever fade away? Not before governance is cleansed of the sort of race-based policies opposed by Connerly, who intimately knows the increasing absurdity of racial classifications and the folly of government preferences based on them.

georgewill@washpost.com


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