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.