Commentary Magazine


Creating Equal by Ward Connerly

Creating Equal: My Fight Against Race Preferences
by Ward Connerly
Encounter. 286 pp. $24.95

Ward Connerly was born in 1939 and spent the first five years of his life as a black boy in segregated Leesville, Louisiana. The death of his mother, and his father’s apparent desertion, soon sent him to the West Coast, where he was raised by an aunt, uncle, and grandmother—all of them quite uneducated. Not exactly a promising beginning, and certainly not the start one would expect for someone who would go on to be a wealthy businessman and a national political figure.

But what makes Connerly’s new memoir still more absorbing is what he has done with his prominence. A major player in helping to overturn affirmative-action policies during the 1990’s, he remains perhaps the country’s most visible spokesman against racial preferences—a distinction that has come at no small personal price.

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Long before he became self-consciously political, Ward Connerly was something of an instinctive conservative. While a student at Sacramento State and early in his working life, he drew mainly “liberal” conclusions from the racial injustices that he saw in America, and was thrilled by the early successes of the civil-rights movement. But, as he writes here, he reacted with feelings of rage and betrayal when black nationalism, not to mention Black Pantherism, took center stage later in the 1960’s. Meanwhile, his own success working for the housing department of the state of California left him feeling that he was “living day by day inside Martin Luther King’s dream.”

By this time, Connerly had become an acknowledged expert on the state’s housing laws—and the friend of a rising star in the California GOP named Pete Wilson. Connerly himself soon registered as a Republican, and in 1973 he and his wife started a consulting firm to advise companies and communities trying to navigate their way through the maze of government housing regulations. The firm struggled at first, but ultimately turned into a very profitable enterprise.

The degree, if any, to which this success can be attributed to Connerly’s political connections is not something he addresses, but his long association with Pete Wilson, who was elected governor in 1990, soon paid off in another way with his appointment to the powerful board of regents of the University of California (UC). There, having previously assumed that affirmative action was a minor consideration in admissions for the state-wide university system, Connerly was flabbergasted by the data he soon came to see.

It turned out that in one year alone, the UC medical school in San Diego had rejected 50 applicants who had better academic qualifications than the best student admitted under affirmative action. The UC campuses at Davis, Irvine, and San Diego had been automatically accepting every “underrepresented minority” student who applied. The notion that race was just one of a number of factors being taken into consideration—the standard legitimized by the Supreme Court’s 1978 decision in Bakke—crumbled before his eyes.

Within a year of his arrival on the board, Connerly reports, he had become known as a troublemaker. In July 1995, he led a majority of the regents in voting to end racial preferences in the university’s employment, contracting, and admissions practices, notwithstanding the presence at the meeting of Jesse Jackson, who persuaded members on the other side of the issue to lock arms and sing “We Shall Overcome” as if they were battling Bull Connor’s attack dogs.

But this was just the beginning of Connerly’s activism. The decision of the board of regents was followed by, and to some extent led to, the next big earthquake in California politics—Proposition 209, which (in language borrowed from the Civil Rights Act of 1964) barred the state from using racial preferences in its employment decisions. Here, too, Connerly played a major role, tirelessly promoting the controversial ballot initiative. His efforts were rewarded by a decisive victory at the polls, with 54 percent of Californians supporting the proposition. The margin was even larger for a similar measure that Connerly helped to place on the ballot in Washington State two years later, and most recently he has stumped energetically for a referendum that would end racial preferences in Florida.

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As connerly recounts, the campaign against Proposition 209 was a supremely nasty affair, in the course of which he himself was singled out as a supposed traitor to his race. “I doubt that any other contemporary black person with the exception of Clarence Thomas,” he writes, “has ever faced the kind of abuse that I took in 1996.” A profile that appeared a year later in the New York Times quoted one of his cousins as saying that Connerly’s aim was to “bring down black people and forget his own blackness.” A California state senator took a different but no less malicious tack, telling the Los Angeles Times that “Connerly wants to be white” and “that’s why he married a white woman.”

Anecdotes sprinkled throughout the book suggest how painful it is to Connerly that many blacks continue to view him as, in the inescapable cliché, an “oreo”: black on the outside, white on the inside. An arresting footnote to this ugly attitude is the fact that despite his appearance, Connerly’s ancestry is in fact half or more white, via Irish and French-Canadian forebears.

Connerly has also been accused of hypocrisy for warring against affirmative action while allegedly having taken advantage of it to get ahead. Here again the truth is complicated. Racial preferences clearly played no part in his education or the launching of his career, but his fateful appointment to the UC board of regents did indeed come about—as Connerly later learned to his dismay—because of pressure on Governor Wilson to promote “diversity.” There is a delicious irony in this, since Connerly would not have gotten the job but for the taken-for-granted view that somebody with his skin color could be counted on not to rock the affirmative-action boat.

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From a wider angle, what is most striking about Ward Connerly, especially in light of the abuse to which he has been subjected, is how alone he is. Among other ostensible conservatives in public life, one would be hard pressed to find anything like his principled determination. In the 1996 presidential campaign, the Dole team never could make up its mind which side the votes were on when it came to racial preferences, and dodged the issue all the way to election day. In Creating Equal, Connerly also recounts some maddening double-talk on the part of both George W. Bush and his brother Jeb, the governor of Florida, both of whom have professed privately to be on his side but have run for cover when asked to go public with their views. In fact, Jeb Bush has done his best to derail Connerly’s antipreference referendum in Florida.

As for corporate America, a generally conservative political force in other areas, it has become passionately committed to the religion of “diversity.” In response to the Washington State referendum, Boeing, Weyerhaeuser, Starbucks, Costco, and Eddie Bauer contributed huge amounts and lent strong vocal support to the “Vote No” campaign, the fundraising for which was orchestrated by none other than the father of Microsoft’s Bill Gates.

In some measure, this posture reflects the calculation that supporting racial preferences is a way to win brownie points that can then be used to fight discrimination suits or to resist pressure from government quota-enforcers. But Connerly plausibly argues that more than legal tactics are involved. After years of leaning on their underlings to meet affirmative-action goals, many CEO’s have come to believe in the cause—and to see it as a ticket to good-guy status in the media. As Connerly observes, however, this is “altruism on the cheap, functioning in the corporate world somewhat like wearing the appropriately colored ribbon [for, say, AIDS or breast cancer] on Academy Awards night.”

Needless to say, diversity and affirmative action remain no less sacrosanct among elite journalists. Even so, at a time when the media and especially the New York Times have been so endlessly preoccupied with questions of race, it is remarkable that only one major paper (the Wall Street Journal) and no newsmagazines have elected to review Connerly’s revealing book. After years of rehearsing the arguments for affirmative action, its apologists would evidently prefer to dodge a confrontation with so articulate and forceful a critic as Ward Connerly.

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About the Author

Dan Seligman is a contributing editor of Forbes.




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