California Regent Defends Prop. 209

California Regent Ward Connerly strongly defended the state's abolition of racial preferences last night, a little more than a week after the first wave of admissions statistics revealed a significant drop in minority attendance at several prestigious state universities.

Speaking before a standing-room only crowd at the ARCO Forum, Connerly, who spearheaded the 1995 drive to end affirmative action in the state university system and later advocated an amendment to the California state constitution, said the American "experiment" in democracy could not sustain itself if government institutions used race as a factor to remedy society's ills.

"Let's confront this, folks," Connerly said, speaking without notes. "Affirmative action...puts people in a box. All my life I have defied operating within the box," he said.

"We can't afford to have a government discriminate," he said.

Connerly recounted his struggle to persuade his fellow regents to end the use of racial preferences.

Growing up, Connerly said he absorbed the rhetoric of John F. Kennedy '40. "[He said in 1962] 'Race has no place in American life or law' I honestly believed that stuff."

In 1993, Connerly was appointed to a 12 year term as a state regent. He began to study admissions trends among blacks and Asian Americans, noting that between 1989 and 1995, the number of African Americans who applied to the state's top universities had not changed, whereas Asian Americans applied in record numbers.

"Something here is wrong," he recalled thinking at the time. "The number of blacks with affirmative action was going down and the number of Asian students was going up."

Far from using race as a single factor, Connerly alleged the school systems were using it as the deciding factor, producing a bifurcated admissions system.

"I saw that race was not one of many factors. That was a lie," he said. "It was the factor."

The vote by a majority of regents to end affirmative action in 1995 riveted national attention on California.

Supporters of affirmative action vociferously protested the decision, call- ing it destructive to the goal of diversity.

"They were really intent on stirring up troublerather than with dealing with the problems," hesaid.

The uproar caused by the regents' actionpersuaded Connerly to accept what he saw as a moreimportant task: to end affirmative action in allstate hiring and promoting.

As chair of the California Civil RightsInitiative, Connerly is widely credited forplacing the 1996 referendum on the ballot. By anarrow majority, California voters accepted StateProposition 209, which banned the use of immutablecharacteristics like race, gender or nationalorigin in state actions and programs.

After court appeals against the initiativefailed in 1997, supporters and opponents anxiouslywaited for the first round of universityadmissions statistics, which were released lastweek.

They show that nearly 14 percent fewer NativeAmerican, Hispanic and black applicants wereadmitted to the state's nine public universitiesthis year. Some campuses, including Berkeley, sawmore than a 50 percent drop in black admissions.

But Connerly said three "historicallyunder-represented" schools saw increases in itsminority admissions rate.

"On the face of it, I am pleased with the wayit's turning out," he said. "System-wide, there isvery little change."

Critics of the initiative said the increases insome schools do not balance the losses inothers--and that the problem ofunder-representation in the more prestigiousschools will only grow worse.

Questioned by a student on the virtue ofdiversity, Connerly acknowledged it as an ideal hevalues.

"We had said we have to have diversity andwe'll strive for excellence, rather than havingexcellence and striving for diversity," he said."Diversity is not a compelling reason to give someof you preference over me," he said.

Kamil E. Redmond '00 asked Connerly whether hebelieved racism still pervaded America'sinstitutions and said a true meritocracy did notexist in university admissions procedures.

Connerly agreed that the UC system was not "apure academic meritocracy," and noted that schoolsare now instructed to admit as much as 50 percentof their classes based upon what Connerly called"supplemental factors" like creativity, tenacityand the ability to overcome obstacles.

Cheryl L. Jones, a fourth year graduatestudent, told Connerly that she "no doubt" hadbenefited from affirmative action in Californiaand worried that its abolition would preventpeople with "disadvantaged backgrounds" fromsucceeding.

Connerly responded that California regents arefocusing their attention on lower performingschools.

Recently, Connerly came out in favor of aproposal to double the spending on underperforming schools--and said last night that hefavors affirmative action based on socioeconomicdifferences.

The Forum audience heeded moderator Alan K.Simpson's careful admonition to respect Connerly,a controversial conservative speaking to a liberalcampus.

Jerry Weinstein, an editor for a localuniversity press, said he "entirely disagreed"with Connerly's argument.

"The lack of understanding of the consequencesof [Proposition 209] is...astounding, "Weinsteinsaid.

Other student felt Connerly's views were not asradical.

"For all those who are angry at Ward Connerly,the anger should be directed towards Californiavoters," said Dmitry Karshtedt '99.

Mansfield's Introduction

Several students said the most controversialremark of the evening came from Harvey C.Mansfield '59, who introduced Connerly.

Mansfield, who is Kenan Professor ofGovernment, began his remarks by calling Connerly"a great black thinker" and lauded him forstanding up for his views. "The greatest blackthinkers have always disagreed," he said.

Mansfield said that African Americans todayface two competing visions of racialreconciliation.

"Martin Luther King is a most honored black.Malcolm X is the most fashionable," Mansfieldsaid.

At the beginning of his speech, Connerlygingerly reproached Mansfield for theintroduction.

"My reason for being in the whole mess is thepresumption that my skin color be relevant in mypublic policy decisions. It should not berelevant!" he said.

After Connerly's speech, angry studentsconfronted Mansfield on the Forum dais about hisintroductory remarks.

Jobe G. Danganan '99 said Mansfield'scomparison of King and Malcolm X was "extremelyoffensive," while Redmond said she was "outraged"by the remark.

Mansfield later refused any additional comment