Affirmative Action on the Ballot

Check on my latest Prospect piece, about how progressive organizers are responding to Ward Connerly‘s push to place anti-affirmative action initiatives on the ballot in five states come November 2008: Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. I scored several personal interviews with Connerly, the businessman and member of the California Board of Regents who championed California’s Proposition 209 and later successfully repealed affirmative action in Washington state and Michigan.

After a string of failures on affirmative action, progressive organizers are trying to control the terms of the debate by challenging Connerly’s "civil rights" rhetoric, which implies affirmative action is just as discriminatory as Jim Crow era segregation. Affirmative action defenders are also re-framing the policy as one that primarily benefits women of all races.

But Connerly, who is black, continues to shift the ground under the opposition’s feet. He is now speaking frequently about his personal support for "socio-economic affirmative action," and reiterating his long-standing opposition to legacy admissions, which help mostly affluent, white students. "We’re saying everywhere we go that there needs to be some kind of transition from racial to socio-economic affirmative action," Connerly told the Prospect. "We strongly support helping those who need it." 

Seeking to soften his appeal, Connerly’s rhetoric echoes that of some progressives who would like to re-focus affirmative action benefits on the poor, instead of on historically-discriminated against groups. Affirmative action defenders say they too support extra help for the poor, but maintain that without programs targeting race and gender, disparities will persist. In California, for example, African American, Latino, and Native American enrollment at UC-Berkeley and UCLA decreased by hundreds of students annually after voters approved Connerly’s Proposition 209 in 1996.

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