December 3, 2003

Connerly Lectures

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“Ward says Jim Crow. We say hell no!” This slogan — chanted by members of the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action & Integration, Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) and other activist groups — was just one sign of protest seen outside of a Uris Auditorium presentation last night.

The presentation, entitled “Affirmative Action = Racism (?),” drew a full, if not friendly, house to hear Ward Connerly, chair of the American Civil Rights Institute, well-known for his outspoken criticism of affirmative action.

As spectators arrived at Uris, they were greeted by members of BAMN, the Asian Pacific Americans for Action (APAA), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and others who supported affirmative action. All together, there were roughly two dozen protesters who chanted, held signs with anti-Connerly slogans and distributed fact sheets about Connerly.

According to Lin Yang ’05, the APAA was protesting “because [the APAA] supports affirmative action, and [they] believe that in this country the playing field is not equal enough to get rid of affirmative action.”

Some made more direct personal attacks on Connerly. One member of the NAACP, Sarah Elliot ’06, described him as “the puppet for neo-conservative beliefs,” and added that he was abusing the fact that he’s African-American for his own personal gains.

The presentation itself began with a reminder to the audience about the Cornell University Campus Code of Conduct, reminding the audience that “a speaker has a right to speak without intimidation, and the audience has the right to hear what they have to say.” After this, Elliott Marton Reed ’05, chair of the Cornell Campus Republicans, gave a few welcoming remarks before introducing Mr. Connerly.

Connerly opened his discussion by saying, “Tonight I’d like to share my perspective about the issue of race.” He went on to expound upon the virtues of removing racial preferences, specifically affirmative action, from society.

“Over the years we’ve crafted this very clever way of saying that the only way to achieve equality is by treating people differently,” Connerly explained. He then stated his view that racial equality can only be achieved if people stop taking race into consideration entirely.

As an example, Connerly described his own experiences as a regent for the University of California, where he helped push forwarded a measure that ended affirmative action policies. Instead, the university now targets more troubled school districts, and uses a policy of “comprehensive review” that looks at each student individually.

Throughout the speech, there was a great deal of tension in the auditorium. While most of the audience seemed interested in Connerly’s ideas, many others were openly hostile: refusing to clap when he was introduced and holding up various signs and banners expressing their objections.

At one point, Connerly stopped his speech, calling one of the banners a “distraction,” and asking for its removal. At this, the audience erupted into a jumble of applause and murmurs. During this, an unidentified audience member yelled, “Why is it a distraction?” to which another replied, “Oh grow up!”

Gabriella Barbartito ’05 and Jarrett Stoltzfus ’05 were two of the audience members holding the banner. According to Stoltzfus, both made sure that no one in the audience would be blocked by the banner and they were trying to be respectful in their protest.

Barbartito agreed, but said she was not upset that they were asked to put it down. They were more disappointed by the fact that Connerly never addressed the issue they were trying to raise.

After the speech, Connerly answered questions from the audience for over an hour. These ranged from questions about his views on racial profiling, to how Connerly can work with a publisher that has produced racist works in the past. Connerly responded to the latter saying “Oh my God! My publisher is a conservative press!” and eliciting laughter from the audience.

One self-described “Jewish American” audience member was offended by Connerly’s comparison between racial classifications in America and the Nuremburg Trials following World War II. Connerly explained that what he meant was that the Nazi philosophy was based on supposed racial differences, the same principle used in affirmative action. “The classifications have [historically] been used for evil purposes,” he explained.

Even after the official question and answer session ended, Connerly remained available for several minutes to discuss the issue with a group of students.

Most students seemed to appreciate the chance to hear different views on the issue. “I thought it was a good honest intellectual debate,” said Brian Kwoba ’04. “It was really stimulating ideologically for me personally, and it was a good event to have on campus.”

Others, like Sika Bediako ’04, disagreed with the views Connerly presented. “Cornell’s not going to let me in with a 1.3 GPA just because I’m a black person,” she said. “Affirmative action doesn’t get me a diploma, I get the diploma myself. It just gives you that first step you need.”

Reed was very pleased with the turnout the event received. “I couldn’t have asked for a better crowd,” he said. He also expressed his pleasure with how smoothly the event ran, and how considerate the audience was overall. “I expected this from fellow Cornellians and I think it speaks to intellectual curiosity,” he explained. Connerly said that the reception he received matched his expectations. “Basically, you have people [at Cornell] with a wide variety of opinions,” he explained. “The thread that is common is all of this is that people don’t have confidence that society will treat them fairly.”

Archived article by Courtney Potts