The University Record, March 25, 1998
News and Information Services
Ward Connerly, former University of California regent and a leading proponent of California's Proposition 209, asked for a chance to be heard, and a roomful of people, many primed to argue with him, temporarily settled down to listen March 18 in the Michigan League Ballroom. Heated emotions surfaced on both sides following Connerly's message that the time has arrived to end preferences in affirmative action programs.
Earlier, part of the audience had gathered at the Diag in a foggy drizzle for a march to the League that was organized by the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action By Any Means Necessary. Connerly's appearance was sponsored by Students for America.
Connerly began by voicing his assumption that many in the audience had come with a preconceived idea of his position based on media coverage. He asked for a respectful hearing in the spirit of "civil people in a civil society" working together to eliminate racism in our society and around the world.
Connerly, an African American man, spoke of experiencing "Jim Crow" laws in Louisiana during his childhood and countless other acts of dignity-sapping discrimination in his life that "made him angry every day." He eventually asked himself three questions: "How long am I to be angry? At whom do I direct my anger? What good does it do me?"
He finally arrived at the answers while chairing the finance committee of the University of California Board of Regents when he learned that disadvantaged applicants of color "were automatically receiving 600 bonus points" in the admissions process "without other considerations." If the point was to achieve diversity, he said, why were no such points given to applicants from other disadvantaged groups?
Since then, he has fought the granting of preferences such as existed in the University of California system, culminating in the passage in 1996 of the ballot initiative known as Proposition 209.
"My opponents are framing the debate as an end to all affirmative action," Connerly said. However, he pointed out, neither he nor the wording of Proposition 209 calls for the elimination of all affirmative action programs.
(Also known as the "California Civil Rights Initiative," Proposition 209 reads: "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.")
Connerly emphasized that he is for affirmative action plans that include such elements as privately funded scholarships for disadvantaged students. He said that the civil rights laws of the 1960s were based on the U.S. Constitution. Affirmative action statutes, he said, do not have a solid constitutional basis, as the courts began to recognize with the Bakke decision 20 years ago. "I have no doubt that the courts will eventually strike down all preferences based on race, gender, ethnicity and national origin," Connerly said.
The program then shifted to a question-and-answer-session that revealed the strong emotions involved in the affirmative action debate, with Connerly's position repeatedly challenged.
Several questioners pointed out that students of color experience discrimination in education well before they are in a position to apply for college. As one person put it, "Why don't you work as hard to change preferences there?" Another asked Connerly if he thought he had ever benefited from affirmative action. He replied that he probably had, but reserved the right to hold his position on preferences.
The exchange became increasingly acrimonious, with some of Connerly's challengers shouting their views and Connerly responding at one point by threatening to leave if he wasn't allowed to reply. He did not have to make that choice and, in fact, remained in the room for nearly 30 minutes following the program to talk with groups and individuals.
Throughout the presentation approximately 100 people who had not been admitted to the room for safety reasons shouted and chanted to be allowed in. League officials and Department of Public Safety officers admitted people as others left the room, and eventually opened the doors to the remainder of the group.
League Director Bob Yecke said that considering the emotional nature of the issue, "I thought everyone involved handled themselves well. It never got out of control and it might have."