Warding off race

Jul 16, 2003 at 12:00 am

Poor Ward Connerly. It must be difficult being colorblind in a society so full of color. Imagine a penguin trapped in a valley full of peacocks; no matter how much the little fella tries to tell himself they’re all just a bunch of birds, the evidence is quite to the contrary.

A millionaire businessman and member of the University of California’s Board of Regents best known for his efforts to scuttle affirmative action programs, Connerly can’t seem to get a handle on the significance of race and diversity in American culture. Rather than put a little more effort into figuring out what most of us black folks figured out quite a while ago — namely that race still matters down here on the ground where the laws of gravity still apply — he prefers simply to abolish racial classifications altogether. No muss, no fuss. Now we can all live together in peace and harmony — on Planet Connerly. Who would have ever suspected that all it takes to eliminate racism and create equality and justice for all is to pass a law effectively erasing race? No race, no racism, right? Life is simple, life is good.

On Planet Connerly.

But let’s rewind this discussion a bit for some background: You might be interested to know that Ward Connerly’s full first name is Wardell. For that matter, Connerly himself might be interested to recall his own name. You see where I’m going with this, Wardell? See, Wardell is one of those names that kind of sends up an advance warning flare that this just might be a black person coming your way. My grandfather’s name was Henry Wardell McNamee. The “Henry” was safe enough, and the “McNamee” certainly offered clear sailing through white waters — at least until my grandfather came through the door — but that Wardell part? I dunno … I suspect that moniker triggered the “Negro alert response team” buzzer whenever it appeared on certain applications or important government forms.

Just to update the analogy a tad for you younger readers out there, a “Wardell’” in some ways is like a “Shaquille” or a “Malik” or a “Moesha.” Or a “Muhammad.” Or “Federico.” Some names send out a certain advance warning in this culture, whereas others slip easily beneath the radar, which makes me wonder why Wardell Connerly goes by the name Ward these days.

Hmmmm …

Remember “Leave it to Beaver”? If you’re old enough to remember that ancient television sitcom, or have caught the reruns, then perhaps you know the name of “The Beav’s” father? His name was Ward Cleaver. Not Wardell Cleaver. Goodness no! Could you imagine Beaver’s mother calling out “Wardell? Wardell! Baby, have you seen the Beav? I swear I don’t know where that chile went to!”

Frightening, yes? You have to wonder if maybe Ward isn’t running as far and fast as possible from Wardell as he possibly can.

OK, moving right along. It seems Ward was so enraged by the recent Supreme Court decision affirming the University of Michigan’s right to continue using racial classifications as a factor in its admissions process that he decided it was time to rush on out here to our state and announce his intention to collect enough signatures to place something known as the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative on the state’s November 2004 ballot. If the measure reaches the ballot and gets a majority of votes to make it the law, the Supreme Court’s ruling could effectively be nullified here. After all, the ruling apparently doesn’t preclude states from taking measures into their own hands if they feel like it.

Of course, since Connerly is a California resident, it seems a little strange that he feels the need to jet all the way up here to save us from ourselves, which I suspect is what he thinks he’s doing. Apparently he can’t trust the anti-affirmative action residents of Michigan — of whom there are plenty — to get mad enough fast enough, so he figures, you know, just to be safe, maybe he’d better lend a helping hand. And Michigan is just the first stop. ...

“We hope we can get a critical mass of states saying ‘This isn’t right,” Connerly is quoted as saying. “Then, hopefully, the president, Supreme Court, and Congress will take the issue up again.” Connerly is determined to win this thing by any means necessary, and he’s just getting revved up. Still, he would have to collect 317,757 signatures to force a vote on his measure, which would essentially bring California’s Proposition 209 to Michigan. Proposition 209, which was passed in 1996, prohibits the state from granting preferential treatment to individuals and groups on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in employment, education and contracting.

Incidentally, just something to think about, but isn’t it strange that Connerly’s organization that he founded to destroy affirmative action is called the “American Civil Rights Institute”? I mean, doesn’t the guy know what …

Poor Ward Connerly.

Anyway, the current ballot proposal being promoted by Connerly in California, which has already gained enough signatures to be placed on the March 2004 ballot, is essentially Proposition 209 on steroids. In addition to banning affirmative action, it would prevent state and local agencies from collecting statistics on the race, ethnicity, color or national origin of students and employees of public schools and colleges, and of government contractors. The measure would also prohibit other agencies from gathering such statistics, although the state Legislature would be given some leeway to exempt certain racial data from the Big Eraser. Data collected specifically for the purpose of complying with federal law, for law enforcement functions or for purposes related to medical research would also be exempt.

The good news is that even in California, Connerly’s Racial Privacy Initiative is running into fairly tough opposition; the initiative is essentially the Big Eraser component of the Michigan proposal. The University of California’s Board of Regents, of which Connerly is a member, voted overwhelmingly early this month to repudiate the Racial Privacy Initiative, which has already qualified for the March 2004 ballot in California. This is significant since this same group supported him on Proposition 209. Also, when Connerly spoke last week in Ann Arbor to promote his anti-affirmative action message, he was met by a very vocal, very visible anti-Connerly contingent. Even the Michigan Republican Party bigwigs made it plain they aren’t supporting his efforts.

Ward? I’d like you to meet Wardell.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]