Race-Baiting on the Ballot

Democrats are girding for a battle on immigration in 2008, both as a topic of debate in the presidential race and as an agenda-setter in the states. Anti-immigrant referendums are expected on ballots across the country. But flying under the radar is another ballot campaign manufactured to play on tensions of race, class, and ethnicity. Ward Connerly, the California businessman who successfully led ballot initiatives to eradicate affirmative action programs in California, Washington state, and Michigan, plans to take his crusade to five more states next year: Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.

After a string of failures on affirmative action, progressive organizers are trying to control the terms of the debate by challenging Connerly's "civil rights" rhetoric, which implies affirmative action is just as discriminatory as Jim Crow-era segregation. Affirmative action defenders are also reframing the policy as one that primarily benefits women of all races.

But Connerly, who is black, continues to shift the ground under the opposition's feet. He is now speaking frequently about his personal support for "socioeconomic affirmative action," and reiterating his long-standing opposition to legacy admissions, which help mostly affluent, white students. "We're saying everywhere we go that there needs to be some kind of transition from racial to socioeconomic affirmative action," Connerly told the Prospect. "We strongly support helping those who need it."

Seeking to soften his appeal, Connerly's rhetoric echoes that of some progressives who would like to refocus affirmative action benefits on the poor, instead of on historically discriminated-against groups. Affirmative action defenders say they too support extra help for the poor, but maintain that without programs targeting race and gender, disparities will persist. In California, for example, African American, Latino, and Native American enrollment at U.C. Berkeley and UCLA decreased by hundreds of students annually after voters approved Connerly's Proposition 209 in 1996.

Those are the results civil-rights organizers are trying to avoid nationwide. "Colorado's affirmative action programs are very modest, and we know that they help address the achievement gap between white and minority students in our public schools," said Linda Meric, co-chair of Colorado Unity, a labor, business, civil-rights, and religious coalition opposing the anti-affirmative action ballot initiative. Meric stressed that white women are major beneficiaries of affirmative action. "Women still face a significant wage gap when compared to men, and we believe that Coloradans support pay equity and programs that help women and girls get into nontraditional fields such as science and engineering," she told the Prospect.

Although affirmative action is understood primarily as a policy used in college admissions, a ban against it would affect a variety of state programs, some of which wouldn't be called "affirmative action" at all. The University of Colorado at Boulder’s Simply the Best program offers after-school technology enrichment, field trips, and visits to college campuses for African American and Latina teen girls. Colorado gives special health-care training to minority and bilingual professionals, which ensures more patients have access to culturally competent care. And the Colorado Minority Business Office helps people of color understand how to apply for state contracts.

Connerly said he would support Colorado's enrichment programs for K-12 students if they selected children according to class, instead of race and gender. But he's firmly opposed to any special help for adults. "I don't see the same compelling public interest," he said.

Connerly's organization, the American Civil Rights Institute, is calling his five-state 2008 push "Super Tuesday for Equal Rights." His movement is practiced at appropriating the language of equality from liberals. In 2006, Connerly's organizers in Michigan successfully put a "civil rights initiative" on the ballot that rolled back race consciousness in school admissions and public hiring, even though such programs have been protected by the Supreme Court.

Affirmative action supporters say voters were confused by the language of Proposal 2, or the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative. It said state universities, colleges, and public employers should not "discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, 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." That's the same language Connerly is pushing in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.

"A portion of the people who voted for Proposal 2 were probably fooled," said Anjali Thakur, field manager of the Affirmative Action Project at the Washington-based Leadership Council on Civil Rights. "Connerly's language is extremely effective because it's misleading, because it's deceptive, and it sounds good. I think he was empowered to go into these other states because of the win in Michigan."

To place a proposal on the ballot, state election boards must approve the language. Then organizers begin a petition drive to collect signatures from voters. Connerly has targeted states with relatively low entry barriers, or no more than about 100,000 signatures required to make it onto the ballot. In Colorado and Missouri, affirmative action supporters sued to keep the "Civil Rights Initiative" off the ballot altogether, claiming its language was misleading. A 3-to-3 State Supreme Court decision in Colorado led to approval for Connerly's organizers to move forward there, and in Missouri a hearing on the initiative's language is scheduled for December. Anti-affirmative action organizers are already gathering signatures in Arizona and Oklahoma, and in Nebraska they await probable approval from the secretary of state.

Connerly's campaigns are funded by national supporters -- Rupert Murdoch donated hundreds of thousands to the Proposition 209 effort in California -- as well as wealthy individuals who oppose affirmative action programs in their home states. Connerly won't say who his funders are, and because his organization is a 501(c)(4) political action committee, he is allowed to keep them private. But the Omaha World Herald reported that in Nebraska, one typical Connerly donor is Dan Cook, a retired investment banker who has donated millions to the University of Nebraska, particularly its athletic programs.

Affirmative action defenders plan on cultivating their own allies outside of traditional liberal circles. In Michigan in 2006, the pro-affirmative action coalition One United Michigan emphasized that it had the support not only of Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, but also her Election Day opponent, Republican Dick DeVos. Almost every religious group in the state endorsed One United Michigan, and the coalition called attention to the U.S. Army's past support for affirmative action. The message was that leaders from a broad spectrum of institutions understood the value of racial diversity.

Yet this message didn't win. Michigan voters approved Connerly's proposal, 58 percent to 42 percent. Looking back, progressive organizers say that in a time of economic insecurity, white voters -- who made up 80 percent to 90 percent of the Michigan electorate -- just weren't willing to support a policy they understood as disadvantaging themselves.

"Michigan has one of the worst economies in the country," said Thakur, a native of the state. "When you're in a position where you're reading every day about layoffs and talking about the failing economy, people have this perception that they want to hold on to whatever they have."

A Democratic platform of providing universal health care, protecting Social Security, and rethinking free trade deals is intended to appeal to these concerns, which also feed anti-immigrant sentiment. As Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said recently, "How many people in America think they've lost their jobs because of trade and immigration? Many more than who have." Many progressives see a dose of economic populism as the best way to combat both nativist sentiment and the affirmative action backlash.

A recent study from several experts in organizational behavior confirms that interpretation. When white subjects were asked about a variety of different affirmative action programs, they were likely to support those that increased minority applications to a school or job, or provided extra training to disadvantaged groups -- as long as they didn't see members of their own group as being hurt by those policies. When some study participants were told a company had increased black employment from 5 percent to 13 percent, they were enthusiastic. A second group of white subjects learned that the company's employment of whites had decreased from 90 percent to 82 percent. Those in the second group were less likely than those in the first to support the affirmative action program.

So the challenge for affirmative action supporters in 2008 will be to convince white voters that these policies are more about helping women, people of color, and the poor than about hurting white men. But with affirmative action such a contentious topic in American political discourse and the economy a major worry, progressive organizers know they are facing an uphill battle. They're focusing not just on defeating Connerly's initiatives, but also on isolating the damage a debate about affirmative action could do to Democratic candidates up the ticket.

Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center in Washington, said that although Colorado, Arizona, and Missouri are expected to be presidential swing states, "affirmative action can be neutralized politically through bipartisan opposition to Connerly. We can protect broader progressive goals."

In Michigan, Granholm won re-election last year despite the divisive battle. Perhaps that's because the same party affiliated with support for affirmative action -- the Democratic party -- is the party many anti-affirmative action voters are hoping can bring back economic security.

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