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Big "Con" at UNC

by Wells Eddleman


Yes. The tickets said "Affrimative Action." Most UNC students (the "non-preferred?") had to stand in line for an hour to get into University of California (UC) trustee Ward Connerly's speech in December, even though student body funds paid for it. Right-wing organizers had allocated all but about 50 seats to UNC trustees, state legislators, and members of their own groups.

Shades of the Ram Road! The seating seemed an apt analogy to Connerly's actions in destroying affirmative action programs in the UC system and writing Proposition 209 that banned affirmative action at all levels of California's government. Once right-wingers have reserved most opportunities for the rich and powerful, the rest of us can have a chance to compete for some of what's left.

Connerly spoke very smoothly until some student questions rattled him. His style is Reagan-esque right down to the lapses in logic. For example, he listed five cases of discrimination he said he'd seen in the last couple of years. Had he never noticed discrimination before that?

Ironically, Connerly's Prop. 209 would only help in about two of these cases, the ones where people defined as "white" had lost out. Prop. 209 would let a white employee of UC into a special training program that had been set up to train minority employees for management positions. The program was set up as a mild remedy for a century or so of excluding minorities from these opportunities. And it's exactly the kind of program Connerly says he supports: Education and training so that people who've been adversely impacted by racism (and still face it all too often) can compete more equally. Never mind. Under Prop. 209, white folks get to keep all the advantages they and their ancestors may have accumulated from centuries of slavery, racism and prejudice, and any current boosts they get from white skin privilege or factors other than race, color, gender or ethnic origin. And they can sue anybody who tries to help the people discriminated against. This is what Connerly calls "fairness."

Another case Prop. 209 might have helped was a young woman with a 1400 SAT, top high school grades and lots of service activities. Her parents are from India and Ukraine, respectively. Classified as "white," she missed admission to UC's elite Berkeley campus. Much later in his talk, Connerly let it slip out that even before he got rid of affirmative action on campus, UC-Berkeley had reserved half of its admissions for the highest academically qualified applicants. Connerly's "victim" had failed to make that cut and got put into the other pool of applicants, where diversity was considered along with narrowly "academic" factors.

Of course, using ethnicity as a diversity criterion could have solved her problem and left affirmative action in place. But in California, that could mean helping Hispanic people too, a big no-no with the "Big Con" conservatives who bash affirmative action.

During the question period, one of the "non-preferred" students who had managed to get into the hall asked Connerly how fair Prop. 209 was to minority students who may have only inferior K through 12 schools available to them. Connerly said California has some of America's worst public schools. (They were among the best before right-wing Proposition 13 cut their funding a generation ago.) Connerly said major efforts were needed to provide equal education to all students in public schools in his state. Why didn't he do that first, so students would have more equal chances in academic areas of college admissions? This was only one of many issues Connerly dodged.

Another UNC-Chapel Hill student pointed out that her parents weren't allowed to attend UNC, which was all-white until 1951 and only signed a consent decree to remedy past racism in admissions in 1981. Since then, UNC has often failed to meet its minority-enrollment goals. Connerly said he was against putting preferences for children or grandkids of alumni into the admissions process. Asked why he didn't include a ban on admissions preference for alumni descendants, athletes, etc., into Prop. 209, Connerly said he can't find those categories in the civil rights law. (If he had put them in, Prop. 209 probably would have lost at the polls. It was a close vote anyway.) Preferences for descendants of alumni can be a new "grandfather clause" to preserve past racism in the present. But there's plenty of racism in the present.

For example, over 50% of black and Hispanic people who try to rent or buy a place to live encounter illegal discrimination in real estate and/or renting. Whites encounter discriminatory practices far less often, and the main one they face is being "steered" to all-white or mostly-white neighborhoods. Equally qualified job applicants, matched for education, grades, honors, dress and manner of speech, had three times the chance of getting a job offer if they were white, compared to black applicants. These are results of studies done in the 1990s. Connerly appears to ignore present racism although he said it is hurting his own nephew's job advancement (and Prop. 209 won't help his nephew).

Connerly claimed to favor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream. But are test scores really the content of a person's character? Connerly never addressed the fact that most good universities have many more qualified applicants than they can admit. Prop. 209 will let racists use criteria that are the least favorable to minorities as their definition of "merit." This will at least partly restore the dominance of white males, for whom virtually all good jobs and education were reserved before the civil rights movement. You could call this "evil opportunity" racism. Wonder what Connerly would think of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's call to end workplace racism. Greenspan is certified by UNC police as someone "everybody loves."

If Mr. Connerly had read the issue of the Raleigh Carolinian published on Dr. King's 69th birthday, he could have read Cash Michaels' fine article on the abuse of King's words by what Michaels termed "conservatives." (They're actually reactionaries.) Michaels quotes Dr. King as saying that "white supremacy" is so entrenched in America that it would take more than just 30 years to cure it. Ironically, it has been 30 years since Dr. King's assassination.

Michaels states, "For too long the depth of racism in American life has been underestimated. The surgery to extract it is necessarily complex and detailed. As a beginning it is important to X-ray our history and reveal the full extent of the disease. The strands of prejudice towards Negroes are tightly wound around the American character. The prejudice has been nourished by the doctrine of race inferiority. It is this tangled web of prejudice from which many Americans are now seeking to liberate themselves, without realizing how deeply it has been woven into their consciousness."

Throughout his evening at UNC, Ward Connerly minimized the racism that continues to exist. He played into the "doctrine of racial inferiority" and seemed to say that the entire burden of overcoming the effects of discrimination rests on those who are discriminated against. That's like saying the entire burden of stopping assaults with deadly weapons should rest on those who are assaulted. No police, no courts, no justice. That's the anti-affirmative action Big Con.


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