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Connerly still targets racial preferences

The ex-UC regent, at USC to speak at a forum, says he plans to put bans on affirmative action on ballots in as many as five more states next year.

January 17, 2007|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

A leading opponent of affirmative action said Tuesday that he expects to expand his campaign by putting measures on the ballot next year to ban racial preferences in as many as five more states.

Ward Connerly, who helped lead the successful anti-affirmative action Proposition 209 campaign in California in 1996 and the election victory for a similar measure in Michigan two months ago, said the political tide has turned against affirmative action.

"We are witnessing the end of an era," said Connerly, a former University of California regent and chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute, his Sacramento-based organization battling affirmative action. "The era of race-based decision-making, I believe, while not dead, is really on life support. And I think that in very short order -- maybe five or 10 years -- it will be dead."

Connerly appeared in Los Angeles to participate in a panel discussion and to give an address arranged by USC's Institute for Justice and Journalism.

Affirmative action supporters who debated Connerly in the lively but cordial two-hour panel discussion argued that the practice is still needed to deal with long-standing inequities in American life.

One supporter of affirmative action, UCLA sociologist Darnell Hunt, noted that many Americans know the late civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- whose birthday was celebrated Monday -- for his "I Have a Dream" speech calling for people to be judged by "the content of their character" and not by the color of their skin.

But Hunt said that goal has remained only a dream not because race-conscious government policies have perpetuated racial divisions -- as some affirmative action opponents have charged -- but because "we never really seriously dealt with" the problems of inequality.

In an interview after the discussion, Hunt -- director of UCLA's Bunche Center for African American Studies -- expressed optimism that affirmative action policies would continue despite Connerly's prediction.

Hunt said that although affirmative action opponents often promote their campaign on ideological grounds, "our nation has never worked that way. We've always made compromises. We've always found pragmatic solutions to maximize the public good, and I think that, in the end, that's what we're striving for now."

The panelists aimed some of their comments at UCLA, a top-ranking public university that -- in the absence of affirmative action throughout the UC system since the mid-1990s -- has seen a drop in enrollment of black undergraduates.

Fresh concern on the campus and elsewhere was triggered in June, when new data showed that only about 100 African Americans -- or 2% of the freshman class -- would enroll at UCLA for the current academic year. It was the lowest level in more than three decades.

UCLA officials have been revamping their undergraduate admissions procedures for this fall's entering class, saying they will abide by Proposition 209 while using a more "holistic" approach to evaluating applicants.

Hunt called UCLA's new approach a "clumsy tool" that is likely to mark only a modest increase in minority enrollment.

Connerly shot back, however, that UCLA's new procedures and the so-called comprehensive review policies governing the entire UC system -- which allow admissions officers to take into account economic and other hardships but not race -- is "going to be the only game in town" for those who want to create racially diverse student bodies.

Due to court rulings and changing political currents, Connerly said, no longer can universities say, "We want more purple students; we'll take you in." But, he contended, "that's simply what the universities were doing."

In one of the more dramatic moments in the panel discussion, Issamar Camacho, a junior from Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, told participants of the hardships she has faced in trying to gain the credentials to eventually be admitted at UC Berkeley.

Camacho, 16, said she has never received any racial preferences even though she is a Latina. In addition, Camacho said, she has gone to overcrowded schools all her life. To improve her chances of getting into UC Berkeley, Camacho said, she has been taking community college courses -- even though she once spent the first two weeks of a term without books because she lacked the money to buy them.

Camacho then asked the panelists whether it was tantamount to discrimination to have to overcome such obstacles and still "not be looked at as the concrete person that I am."

Connerly replied that, under UC's comprehensive review policies that take hardship into account, "your background would probably rise to a higher level than it did before."

But Hunt said that wasn't necessarily true, and that UC schools' inability to use race or ethnicity as criteria could hurt Camacho's prospects for being admitted despite the hardships she has faced.

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