Two more states -- Colorado and Nebraska -- will vote this November on another of Ward Connerly's ballot initiatives, deciding whether to redefine affirmative action and eliminate race as a factor in college admissions and government contracting. Similar rules have already fallen in California, Texas, Washington, Florida and Michigan -- with Connerly deserving the blame or the credit, depending on who you ask.
Now Connerly, the president of the American Civil Rights Institute, says the country is ready for a next step on issues of race, in more ways than one. Perhaps Americans will choose as their president Sen. Barack Obama, whom Connerly calls a "self-described black man." Perhaps we're nearing a day when Obama can be seen as a white man, Connerly posits.
Connerly discussed all of these thoughts, plus how affirmative action might sometimes be helpful, during an interview with NationalJournal.com managing editor Lucas Grindley. Edited excerpts follow. Visit the archives page for more Insider Interviews.
Q. During an interview with the Arizona Republic in July, you decried a "dependency" on the part of Black America. What did you mean by that?
Connerly: What I mean is that I think that there are many black Americans who have been conditioned to believe that they cannot succeed in American life without affirmative action, a tool that was designed to mitigate oppression and racial discrimination of the Jim Crow era and something that was not meant to be permanent. But I think that it has become deeply embedded in the fabric of black life. And that's why probably 75 to 80 percent of blacks so religiously support race-based affirmative action.
Q. You seemed to think this attitude of dependency had spread to other areas. You called it a "disease worse than the cure." In what other ways do you think this dependent attitude takes shape?
Connerly: I think you can see that attitude of dependency in how we view our responsibility as parents, for example. A lot of blacks hold society accountable and believe that there is institutional racism and that our futures are dependent upon somebody giving us affirmative action. I hear it in debates and in discussions. There is a view that we are dependent upon the generosity of American society for our success rather than our own accomplishments.
Q. In 1998, Sen. John McCain opposed putting an initiative like yours on the ballot in his home state of Arizona, saying it wasn't the right way to accomplish the goal. In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush didn't wait for a ballot initiative and instead went ahead and did it legislatively. Which is a better way? Through the legislature or the ballot box?
Connerly: It's certainly more sustaining if it's done through the ballot initiative, because as Al Gore once said -- not of this, but of something else -- it's in a lock box. You put it in the Constitution and you're embedding the principle that every person is entitled to equal treatment under the law. So I think it's better, and it has a long, more lasting effect.
Now, if you can get someone to do it through executive order and if the subsequent governor or president will embrace that executive order, then it's certainly easier. But other than Jeb Bush, I don't know of any other governor or any other elected official who's been willing to do that. And the Congress won't take it up. The Supreme Court waffles over it... so when you have this indecision on the part of the court, you have the timidity by the Congress and you have political forces that prevent it from happening in other venues, we're left almost with no choice but the ballot box.
Q. Have you made many strides in trying to do it legislatively even though you seem to think it would be a less reliable way to accomplish your goals?
Connerly: We tried in Wisconsin. We tried in Nebraska. We tried in Florida. We tried in Arizona. And in every one of those instances we couldn't gain any traction at all, not because they didn't embrace it. We had legislators say, "You know, I agree with you, but..."
In Nebraska, there are a group of legislators -- Democrats and Republicans -- who went to the author of our bill and said, "If you bring this bill up for a hearing, you will never get another one of your bills out of this unicameral legislature." It's just one of those things that no matter what the people say, political figures can't muster the courage to go ahead with such a bill. And I can understand it, because you're called names, and all other sorts of things are done to exert pressure on you and retribution for your taking a stance.
Q. You recently voiced support for a bill that had been amended to stop affirmative action from being used in federal government contracting. Is it likely that could happen, even with the change of a president?
Connerly: No, it's not likely. I think you are referring to the amendment -- I think it was in a transportation bill -- yeah, and that was, frankly, snuck in at the eleventh hour, and the minute that people realized what had happened, that effort was killed.
I think it would suffer a similar fate regardless of who's elected, McCain or Obama. The Congress is not going to take this issue up. The only way that preferences will be killed is either by a court action -- and I think that if the court stays largely the way it is right now, that is most certainly going to happen -- or by ballot initiatives, because clearly, a very clear majority of the American people do not favor unequal treatment of their citizens.
You mention often "affirmative action." I do want to respond to that because the courts have said that "affirmative action" is, quote, an amorphous term. It can mean many things... we don't seek to end all affirmative action.
Q. I was hoping to ask you about this. Also in the interview with the Arizona Republic, you said affirmative action might be necessary in small doses, "maybe put in a little here and there." When might small doses of affirmative action be appropriate?
Connerly: Again, terminology has to be considered here. I think that a dose of socioeconomic affirmative action would be useful for a college that wants to make sure that it is providing access to people from different backgrounds. A college might go to black churches. It might go to Cinco de Mayo events. It might send faculty members to do tutoring. It might have student-based outreach that goes to schools that typically do not send students to college. Those forms of affirmative action are race-neutral. They are not preferential in admissions or whatever. That would be a dose, and that doesn't have to be small, even. That could be a large dose of affirmative action.
Q. In states where race-neutral admissions have begun: To help prevent a drop in African-American enrollment, California guaranteed college admission to the top 4 percent of high school students. Texas did 10 percent, and Florida did 20 percent. Does the percentage matter?
Connerly: I think it does. For example, when I was on the [California] Board of Regents, we looked at the top 4 percent. We looked at 6. I think we looked at 10. And I think we looked at 12 1/2. And what we found in doing simulation models is that when you got beyond 6 percent, for example, the quality of the institution -- based on the academic profile of the students -- the quality really suffered.
So, yeah, the percentage is very, very significant. Now obviously, the higher the percentage, the more, quote, underrepresented minorities will be admitted. But if you're selecting a percentage for that purpose, then you're probably breaking the law, because the law of [Proposition] 209 is that you will be blind to these considerations. To admit a number under the top percent plan hoping for a certain outcome is a distinction without a difference in terms of preferences.
Q. What difference, if any difference, would it make for the United States to have a black president?
Connerly: I think that it says to the world, and it says to the American people, that we have largely conquered this color line, at least in the political setting. It doesn't mean that all racism is over, because no one group of people has a monopoly on racism. But it certainly says that if a black person can aspire to become president of the United States and be elected, it says that the American people are willing to give anyone a chance to be whatever they want to be. I mean, no doors are closed any longer. If we are willing to entrust the most important decisions in our country to a black person, that is a powerful statement.
Q. Aside from the message that it sends, do you think it will have any consequence for governing?
Connerly: There are so many imponderables that it's hard to predict what's going to happen here. I often say to those who are scared to death of Obama that rarely do our worst fears about someone materialize and rarely do our wildest expectations materialize. It usually ends up being somewhere in the middle. And so those who fear the economic policies of a Senator Obama, who is a self-described black man, their fears may not come to pass as radically as they surmise. But I think a lot of this is just because of his philosophy and very little because of his skin color.
Q. Why did you say "self-described" black man?
Connerly: Race, I believe, is -- given the number of interracial marriages and everything else -- race is how you define yourself. I think, someday in the fullness of time, we will allow the possibility that Senator Obama -- whose skin is brown -- is white. Our lying eyes right now won't accept that possibility. We call him black, and therefore I think he says, "All right." I think he probably willingly identifies as such. But there are a lot of people whose color does not clearly define who they are. And they would just as soon not have to check any boxes. But if they have any features that suggest that they are, quote, black, then many just say: "Hell with it, I won't argue, I'll just accept that and I'll identify as such," even though they might not even look it.
Q. How do you describe yourself?
Connerly: I am multiracial. But very few agencies even allow that as an option. We are a mono-racial society. You are either this, or you're that. And we don't allow for blended people, of whom there are many, many, many, many more every day in this country. My ancestors are Choctaw and Irish and French and African, and yet in this country, I am a black man. And so I don't argue with those who look at me and say, "You're a black man."