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Affirmative Action Foes Push Ballot Initiatives

Ward Connerly points to the success of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as a sign that preferences based on race and gender are no longer needed.
Ward Connerly points to the success of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as a sign that preferences based on race and gender are no longer needed. (Photo: Ken Papaleo/Rocky Mountain News)
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By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 26, 2008

CHICAGO -- Sixteen months after voters in Michigan voted to kill affirmative action in the public sphere, opponents of preferences based on race and gender are pushing five more states to ban the practice.

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Foes of affirmative action, which is meant to address current and historical inequities, delivered 128,744 signatures to Colorado authorities earlier this month. Similar organizations in Arizona, Missouri, Oklahoma and Nebraska are circulating petitions as civil rights groups and educators are mobilizing to defeat the measures.

The initiatives are spearheaded by Ward Connerly, the nation's most prominent opponent of affirmative action, who said he has raised about $1.5 million for the campaigns. He sees the November ballot initiatives as the next step in his drive to end preferences in public education, hiring and contracting.

"Without any doubt, we have to understand that race preferences are on the way out," said Connerly, who heads to Missouri next week to deliver speeches on behalf of that state's constitutional amendment, now tangled in a court battle over the ballot measure's wording.

In the states where Connerly's self-described "civil rights initiative" appears on the ballot, voters are likely to see it alongside the name of the first black or female major-party presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) Connerly contends that the success of Obama and Clinton shows that preferences are no longer necessary "to compensate for, quote, institutional racism and institutional sexism."

Connerly, a prosperous and conservative black Republican, said he contributed $500 to Obama's campaign to honor him "for trying to take race out of the body politic." Obama opposes Connerly's approach to affirmative action and lent his voice to a 2006 radio ad opposing the Connerly-sponsored Proposition 2 in Michigan. (The Obama campaign would not comment on whether it is keeping the money.)

Obama is not alone. Opponents of Connerly's effort are using legal challenges and grass-roots organizing techniques to keep the measures off the ballot, or to defeat them.

"As we feared, Connerly's attack on equal opportunity in Michigan has metastasized," said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. "We know that most Americans support equal opportunity. They know that diversity is good for business, good for the classroom and ultimately good for the country."

Henderson dismissed Connerly's reference to Obama as a willingness to "seize on any factoid to justify his assault on equal opportunity" and added: "I am not surprised he would lift up the performance of Barack to say that race no longer matters in American life. That's a gross overstatement of the lives of most Americans."

Redditt Hudson, who heads the racial justice program in the St. Louis office of the American Civil Liberties Union, contends that the deck is stacked against qualified minority firms in Missouri. He said where affirmative action programs are absent from the local private sector, "you've got a minimal proportion of those contracting dollars going to minority-owned firms."

Hudson said a number of organizations are working to educate Missouri voters and hoping that Connerly's Missouri Civil Rights Initiative will fall short of the 140,000 to 150,000 signatures it needs to make the ballot.

Tim Asher, a former college admissions officer, is leading the Missouri ballot effort. He said the organization is on pace to meet a May 4 deadline, circulating petitions that contain language written by a judge, although the case remains on appeal.

Asher described affirmative action as a form of discrimination because it permits or requires the use of diversity as a factor in employment, contracting and university admission. He said diversity can be achieved through programs that target economically and socially disadvantaged people of all races.

"We need to get beyond race in this country and make sure that everyone is treated equally under the law," Asher said. His counterpart in Nebraska, management professor Marc Schneiderjans of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, said paid signature-gatherers in his state have been slowed by an unusually long Midwestern winter but will be back in action soon.

Hudson, of the Eastern Missouri ACLU, said opponents of affirmative action "fail to take into account the on-the-ground realities that continue to persist." Their victory, he said, "would undermine one of the greatest achievements of the civil rights era."


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