November 13, 2015

Political Activist Ward Connerly Speaks on Racial Equality in Higher Education

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Political activist Ward Connerly said he makes “no apology for saying that I am a guy who belongs to the camp of color-blindness.” In a Wednesday lecture hosted by the Cornell Republicans, the former University of California regent spoke on the future of racial preferences in higher education.

Connerly gained national attention in the 1990s when he served on the University of California’s governing board and led controversial efforts to dismantle affirmative action policies in University admissions.

His initiative led to a statewide ballot measure that prohibited all state governmental institutions from considering race, sex or ethnicity with regards to employment, contracting and education. Connerly later led similar successful efforts in Michigan, Washington, Arizona, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

According to Connerly, he felt uncomfortable with the way the University used race in admission policies, giving preferences to underrepresented minorities through affirmative action.

“I was serving my term as a regent, and I realized that the University was using race in a very profound way to create this so-called diversity,” Connerly said. “As I was chairing the finance committee, which as the major committee on the board, I asked the question one day, ‘What is diversity?’”

Connerly said no one could give him a satisfactory answer.

Attributing his “color-blind” perspective to his own multiracial background, Connerly said that his childhood in the Deep South had a profound impact on his opinions regarding racial preferences.

“We were of Irish descent, of French descent and Choctaw Indian, and on my father’s side we were of African descent,” Connerly said. “But this thing that we call race was something that we did not quite understand because those within my family represented all different colors of the spectrum.”

The stratified society he faced in his childhood — which Connerly said existed “largely because that’s the way the government wanted it” — made Connerly wary of what he called “discrimination” based on race.

“As an American growing up in the Deep South, [I saw] how the government could abuse its authority to pick winners and losers by saying we don’t like your color, we don’t like your characteristics,” Connerly said.

Some students questioned whether removing affirmative action policies would magnify the problems facing low-income students, who they said often make up a majority of the population of underrepresented minorities.

Connerly responded by saying that he recognized the problem of economic inequality, but wanted to address the issue by aiding underperforming schools, rather than continuing affirmative action policies.

“I am not opposed at all to the government going into various neighborhoods and making itself available to help students get on the playing field to compete,” Connerly said. “We need to do a better job at the K-12 level to make sure that people have to ability to compete.”

Connerly also expressed his hope that the rehearing of Supreme Court case Fisher v. University of Texas — which address the constitutionality of affirmative action — will lead the American government to live out “the meaning of its creed” and cease to discriminate in higher education based on racial preferences.

“The 1964 Equal Rights Act says that all of us are entitled to equal treatment under the law,” Connerly said. “I don’t think that we can get to the point where we are all full Americans until our government lives daily, hourly, every minute by that ethic that we will not discriminate against people on the basis of their innate characteristics.”

Connerly emphasized that college campuses must remain places where an open dialog about racial issues is safe and encouraged.

“There is probably no place where it should be safer to have a dialogue about one of the most sensitive subject in our society, race, than on campus,” Connerly said. “Campus should provide an environment for being able to civilly discuss any issue, but especially one that affects all of us.”