Ward Connerly is a black businessman who led successful campaigns in California and Washington state to pass initiatives that bar the states from discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin or gender in public employment, public education or the awarding of contracts. Fresh from his victory in Washington, where the initiative was approved by 59 percent of the voters on November 3, Connerly spoke at a banquet given by Accuracy in Academia at Columbia University on November 13.
The student newspaper at Columbia ran an editorial in advance of Connerly’s appearance in which it charged that his strategy was “to present voters with a vague, seemingly egalitarian ballot initiative that neglected to mention that voting ‘yes’ meant ending affirmative action.” It said, “The truth about Connerly is that his greatest claim to fame springs from his success at misrepresenting the truth.” The editorial called for a large demonstration to protest Connerly’s appearance on campus.
Eli Sanders, the student who wrote the editorial, heard Connerly speak. Asking a question, he repeated his accusation that Connerly was misrepresenting the truth in his campaign to end discrimination based on race and gender. Connerly responded, saying that the initiative he had propelled to victory in California consisted of 34 words taken from the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It said, “The state shall not discriminate against 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.”
Five words had been added to the initiative in Washington to make it even clearer what the voters were being asked to approve. The added words made it illegal for the state to grant preferential treatment to anyone because of race or gender. Connerly emphasized that he was in favor of affirmative action as long as it did not involve discrimination or giving preferential treatment. He said the kind of affirmative action he favored was making an effort to find qualified individuals regardless of race, provide them with training, but not to give them preferential treatment and discriminate against others.
A year ago, the City Council in Houston did what Eli Sanders, the student editor, apparently thinks Connerly should do. When an initiative using Connerly’s language was approved for submission to the voters of Houston, the City Council changed the wording to read as follows: “Shall the Charter of the City of Houston be amended to end the use of Affirmative Action for women and minorities in the operation of City of Houston employment and contracting including ending the current program and any similar programs in the future?”
The Houston City Council made this change because it feared that voters would agree that the city should not discriminate on the basis of race or sex in hiring employees or in awarding contracts. The revised wording made no mention of discrimination or preferential treatment, and the initiative that would have ended the city’s discriminatory affirmative action programs was defeated. A judge has overturned the vote, ruling that the change in the language was improper. The city is appealing the ruling.