Two decades ago Wardell “Ward” Connerly was arguably the most hated Black man in America.
His efforts ended the use of affirmative action in employment, state contracting and college admissions in California and led to several other states to follow suit. With Prop. 16, Assemblymember Shirley N. Weber’s attempt to repeal his Prop. 209 on the November 3 ballot, Connerly has come out of retirement to launch a counterattack.
The Sacramento OBSERVER sat down with the 81-year-old political activist, businessman and former University of California regent to talk about his “No On 16” campaign, a post-209 California, where the nation stands in terms of race and equality, and how his Southern roots helped shape his views.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish with No on 16?
A: hope to accomplish what I set out to accomplish 24 years ago when I was chairman of the campaign to adopt proposition 209. If you read the language of 209 I don’t see how anyone who is of sound mind and reasonable thought cannot support it. The state shall not discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race — that’s color, ethnicity or national origin — in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting.
I was born in the Deep South, Leesville, Louisiana, in 1939 and as I’ve often said, there was a C on my birth certificate and that C was for colored. I have never forgotten that and I will never forget that because it represented an era known as Jim Crow in which my government categorized people like a bunch of jelly beans and put the good ones over here and a bad one over there and with the grace of God and sane laws we got rid of that in the late 1960s we got rid of that thanks to the leadership of Dr. King and a bunch of other people Black and White and we decided that we wanted to be a system of individual equality and individual equity not based on the color of our skin but based on the fact that I am a human being and the good Lord created me as an equal. Prop. 209 was the manifestation of that belief proposition 16 seeks to wipe it off the books and I think that that is a serious mistake. You start erasing the standard of quality in the name of affirmative action for diversity and you fundamentally alter the character of America, you alter the rights that people have.
Q: You’re the president of a campaign called California For Equal Rights. Are we equal?
A: No. And we never will be. We live in a capitalist system and in a capitalist system there is going to be competition and in competition someone’s going to lose and someone’s going to win. They may end up being one or the other, but if you (want) the will of government to say we are going to make sure that we have equal outcomes, you just erased the whole notion of equal opportunity. When I graduated from college in 1962 I honestly looked at the bottom of ads that I saw in the paper to see whether they said ‘we are an equal opportunity employer.’ That meant something. It meant that I was free to apply there and that I would be given the presumption of my merit and not be turned down because of my brown skin.
They’re (Prop. 16 proponents) trying to misuse the word equal. They’re looking at the outcome of a competition. I’m looking at the beginning of the competition. They’re saying, we want to see X percent in this position and that position. They want the workforce to ‘look like America,’ ‘look like California.’ I’m saying that that should not be the basis for the public policy that we have. What do you mean, ‘look like?’ There are people who are, based on their skin color, virtually White, but they’re called Black. There are people who are cream-colored. There are people who are chocolate. We span all of those. We span the rainbow, so if you say that you want someone who ‘looks like California’ and you’re talking about color, how are you going to create a cake with all these different ingredients mixed in?
Q: If we’re not equal, shouldn’t we be working toward that?
A: I would submit that we have a system of competition and that we prepare ourselves for the fact that there will be unequal outcomes based on race. If we want to make sure that everyone has an equal shot at competing, I’m with you there and if it means that we need to look at it in the context of income, to make sure that all the people in Del Paso Heights, which is where I lived almost all of my years when I came to this state, until I graduated from high school (are able to compete), but if we go down the road of saying, ‘Let’s make these decisions based on race,’ I think that’s a big mistake.
Q: Have you spoken with Prop. 16 leader Dr. Weber?
A: No, I have not. We’re on opposite sides. Her vision of what the public policy structure should be is entirely different from mine, entirely. I have no mean thoughts about her at all. She’s doing what she thinks is right. I’m doing what I think is right. I think that the framework of our country is the right one. She thinks it’s wrong. She has said that what she is doing is going to ‘make some people uncomfortable.’ She’s right about that. But I don’t think we’re going to have too many solutions on the issue of race by making people uncomfortable. We have to be on a solid, moral foundation, in my view, and we go from there.
Q: How do you view a post-209 California?
A: I view it well. Look at the actual statistics rather than the rhetoric on either side. The actual statistics are that we have come a long way in terms of finding ways of looking at standards. The SATs doing away with that looking at other things that will expand access to the competition. There is a lot more to be done especially in the area of contracting. There are agencies that go with what they call ‘the lowest responsible bid’ and that word ‘responsible’ allows them to stick with the old tried-and-true ways without expanding access to people who have been historically denied. And if they would focus on doing that, because 209 doesn’t forbid that, if they would focus on doing that, go with small contractors, go with The Sacramento OBSERVER and not the Sacramento Bee in its advertising of job placement or whatever, you can expand access. You can expand access by other factors other than race. Once you go down that path of race, you can’t say it’s one of many factors as the Supreme Court has ruled, because when you use race, it’s the only factor, it transcends everything else.
Q: Why do you think race is still an issue in 2020?
A: It’s an issue because of Black Lives Matter. And Black lives do matter, but I would say Blackness does not. Whiteness does not. There are Latinos that are White guys, but are Latino. There are Asians who are White people, but they are Asian, so today skin color doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter. The only way we get it to not matter is to stop making it matter. We’ve gotten into this point because we’ve really never discussed the competing alternatives here. Do we want race to matter? Recognizing that it does or should we be striving to make it not matter? And I think that Prop. 209 takes us in the direction of saying don’t use race, don’t discriminate against people based on color, sex and so on. We’ve gotten to this point, I think, because we never made the decision on whether we want race to be erased from the landscape like the N-word or whether we want to leave racism in place and then try to make sure that every group of people, every demographic group is somehow represented at the end of the competition. We’ve never debated that.
Affirmative action was not done by the Congress. It was done by an executive order, first by President Kennedy in 1961 in which he said that race has no place in American life or law and he issued an executive order that demanded all federal contractors to take affirmative action, used for the first time, to ensure that there was no discrimination. And in ’65, after his assassination, LBJ, at the urging of Dr. King, strengthened affirmative action to say that he wanted to see results, some goals, and said, ‘I want to make sure that there are some timetables for the achievement of those goals.’ It made sense at that point, because Black people were just coming out of Jim Crow and there needed to be something to jumpstart, if you will, our freedom, our access into the mainstream of American life. That has largely been accomplished.
Q: Protests continue all across the country, throughout California, here in Sacramento as well, with people calling out racism, racial profiling and unfair treatment and calling for change. Do you think that the times we’re in right now will lift Prop. 16 to a successful passage?
A: No. People are getting very weary of all of this violence really and the looting. Going into Target and getting a television or going into the Gucci store and grabbing an expensive watch is not going to endure people to Prop. 16. I think it has the opposite effect.
Q:You know that’s not just Black people, right?
A: Right, it’s not primarily Black folks. Folks are seeing it as a country in turmoil, triggered by young Whites, but I think people will want to go back to foundational principles of equal treatment for all and they’ll say, ‘oh no’ on this thing that wants to give government the ability to use race to order how our society is going to be.
People’s instincts, and that’s what’s happening here, you’re triggering instincts, people are saying, we don’t like this. We need to get back to some semblance of order, and order is not racial discrimination which is what the proposition 16 people are proposing. I think that even they are hesitant to embrace discrimination. The debate, really is about preferential treatment. Is affirmative action a system of preferential treatment or not? That’s where the argument really resides. And I say it is. Why else would we be doing it?
EDITOR’S NOTE: See next week’s issue of The OBSERVER for the second part of our discussion with Ward Connerly as he speaks about the University California system after Prop. 209, its first Black president, how the Black community perceives him and the recent re-emergence of Black Republicans.
By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer