Backer of Proposition 54 challenges the way Californians look at race

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- Ward Connerly has been called a "boot-licking Uncle Tom." He's been labeled Con-man Connerly, the most hated black man in America.

In other circles, he's hailed as an American hero, a courageous man of principle who perseveres in the face of enormous opposition.

Love him or loathe him, the 64-year-old businessman is the main figure behind a California initiative that challenges voters to contemplate the role of race in society.

Proposition 54, on the ballot in California's Oct. 7 election, would prevent the state from classifying people by race, ethnicity or national origin in public education, contracting or employment. Opposed by two major candidates to replace Gov. Gray Davis, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, a Democrat, even Connerly has said it'll be impossible to match the resources aimed at stopping his effort.

Still, he's carrying on the campaign. Proposition 54 would, among other things, likely keep officials from learning the race of people in public health surveys and those who apply to state colleges and universities -- helping to create a "colorblind" California in the view of Connerly, a man who feels a great personal stake in the issue.

By his own description, the chairman of the Proposition 54 campaign is more or less equal parts French-Canadian, Choctaw, African and Irish-American. Connerly resists being identified as "African-American," saying he has more non-African than African-American descent.

To call him so is "demanding that I deny the rest of my ancestry," said Connerly, a balding man with a dignified bearing and a neat mustache, flecked with gray.

The University of California regent, who successfully pushed 1996's Proposition 209 banning the consideration of race and gender in public employment, education and contracting, sees multicultural California as a "laboratory of this human family that is constantly evolving."

"My motivation is to present the nation, by way of California, with a different option for the kind of nation that it's going to become," Connerly said in an interview with The Associated Press.

He hopes one day people will see "ourselves as one human family, not divided by skin color, or where our ancestors came from, or our sexual orientation, or our gender."

In his 2000 memoir, "Creating Equal: My Fight Against Race Preferences," Connerly said he believes race is "an outmoded 19th century concept, which never had any scientific basis."

Proposition 54 is his latest attempt to change that. "My children are all of me and all of their Irish mother. Two of my grandchildren also have a mother who is half Vietnamese. What box do you want us all to check?" Connerly asked the Sacramento Press Club recently.

After his mother died when he was 4, Connerly lived with an aunt and uncle. Later, he moved in with his grandmother in Sacramento, where dinner was sometimes just a slice of sweet potato and a glass of milk. At times, he lined the soles of old shoes with cardboard.

He began to think about whether race really mattered in college, when he became the first black member of the Delta Phi Omega fraternity at Sacramento State College. Connerly also testified before the state legislature about housing discrimination against minorities.

He married a white woman, Ilene, in 1962 -- a time when "'marrying outside your race' was no easy decision," Connerly wrote. The couple were estranged from her parents until their son, Marc, was born about a year later.

Again, Connerly realized that racial barriers were artificial.

In the 1970s, he became a Republican and befriended Pete Wilson, who would later become governor and appoint Connerly to the UC Board of Regents.

Around the same time, he and his wife opened Connerly & Associates, a Sacramento consulting firm where he now earns about $450 an hour originating home repair loans and serving as the administrative arm for professional trade associations.

Connerly often employs his own story as proof that affirmative action is unnecessary. "Why do black people still have this mind-set that the world is stacked against them?" he asked.

He was in his 50s, established and successful, when his crusade to end affirmative action -- which he calls "preferences" -- was sparked by a visit from a white couple in 1994. They said their son was rejected by several UC medical schools, though he was more academically qualified than applicants of other races.

About two years later, Connerly oversaw the passage of Proposition 209, which dismantled many state affirmative action programs.

Connerly's drive to end the state's collection of racial data has been more gradual, fueled by stories of people's confusion over which race box to check on the 2000 census form.

Further inspiration came from a conversation with his granddaughter, Brittany, the child of Connerly's son and a half-Vietnamese mother. After watching her grandfather take part in a debate on C-SPAN, she asked him, "'What race am I?"' Connerly recalled. "And I'm not often speechless, but I just kind of sat there."

"What do I tell her? Finally I just said, 'You're you. You're one of a kind."'

Among Connerly's critics, blacks have been the most vocal.

In the Boondocks comic strip by Aaron McGruder, one character referred to Connerly as a "boot-licking Uncle Tom."

Outside a hotel where he spoke recently, protester Clarence Caesar said Proposition 54 will deprive communities of vital information.

"I think he has issues with who he is. He's got a right to think what he wants about race," Caesar said. "To impose those on the people of California as though they're a remedy for racial problems in this country is ridiculous."

Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has labeled Connerly in past speeches as "Con-man Connerly" and the "California terminator" of affirmative action.

A colorblind society is something "we all want to move toward," Bond said. "But you don't do that by taking away the tools that demonstrate disparities. All you do is hide disparities, and hidden disparities can never be healed."

Yet Shelby Steele, a black research fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, admires Connerly's persistence.

"Ward Connerly is not a great orator or some sort of starlike personality. He's a guy who goes to work every day for what he believes," Steele said. "History will see him very favorably ... (as) a man of principle standing against the small-mindedness of his times."

Though Connerly emphasizes he's not the only proponent of Proposition 54, he's the one most closely associated with it.

Even the measure's name has become political. Connerly calls it the "racial privacy initiative," while some of his opponents have dubbed it "the Connerly information ban."

All the hostility can be disconcerting to Connerly. Seven years ago, something -- possibly a pellet gun -- punctured his office window, and he removed the sign outside.

"It really began to dawn on me that whether I like it or not, I'm somewhat of an icon. And that means I'm going to take a pretty fair amount of hits from people," Connerly said.

"It reaches a point where that old saying sort of applies, 'If you want to lead the choir, you have to turn your back on the audience."'


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