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Outsider confusing anti-affirmative action with civil rights

November 28, 2010

“No Child Left Behind is the most ironically named piece of legislation since the 1942 Japanese Family Leave Act.” — Al Franken

Well, here’s a topper.  My vote for the most ironic name:  the American Civil Rights Institute.  

Its founder and president, Ward Connerly, seeks to educate us about “the harms of racial and gender preferences in federal, state and government programs.”

Oh.  That kind of civil rights institute.

The kind of civil rights institute whose sole function is to work against affirmative action and to misrepresent it besides.

Let’s get our terms clear before we proceed:  Affirmative action doesn’t get anyone hired or admitted to medical school.  What it does is ensure qualified candidates, even those from historically excluded groups, get into the hiring or higher education pool.  A qualified candidate is given no preference to be chosen, but affirmative action guarantees an equal opportunity to be considered.

In 1969 Richard Nixon, our freshly minted 37th president, issued Executive Order 11478, requiring all federal agencies to adopt “affirmative programs for equal employment opportunity.”  The idea was to push back against centuries of racism, sexism and other forms of preference for white males.

Connerly, an African American raised in the Jim Crow South, lives in California.  He’s a Republican/Libertarian, and above all else, a wealthy, wealthy man.  He’s a darling of ultraconservative groups who give piles of cash to the ACRI.

Connerly pays himself these funds by the millions as “speaking fees” for working to eradicate affirmative action.

He came to prominence as a lobbyist for huge construction contractors who benefit from keeping women and minorities out of the candidate pool for government contracts.  He uses potentially fraudulent tactics to get his initiatives on the ballot, then he uses intentionally deceptive language like Super Tuesday for Equal Rights to manipulate the outcome.

Everywhere he goes, voters complain he duped them into voting for a thing that turns out to be the opposite of what it sounded like.  And now he’s focused on Utah.

This non-Utahn, this fellow with nothing but millions of dollars to gain by stirring up trouble, was here a week ago to crank up his campaign.

I confess I don’t know what to make of an African American guy who feels “the white man is really disadvantaged,” as Connerly has said, but I worry that his message could resonate here.

This outside agitator has buddied up to Utah Reps. Curt Oda and Carl Wimmer and Utah Sen. Margaret Dayton and they appear to be buying what he’s selling.

He’s likely to have legislation with a really positive-sounding name in the 2011 Utah legislative session, and if it passes, it will be on our ballot in 2012.

Affirmative action exists for a reason, a still very valid reason.

Programs to get girls interested in math and science, or to get returned missionaries and moms with kids back into college are examples of the good affirmative action does.

This isn’t an issue of left or right, Republican or Democrat.  Connerly is an equal-opportunity offender.  (Ironically.)  The changes he’s advocating could have damaging implications for a broad range of Utahns: women, minorities, first-generation college students, student athletes.

This is about whether we want to give everyone a fair shake.

Ward Connerly doesn’t want you wondering why he’s messing with our Utah Constitution.

He says he wants us to be color-blind, to stop thinking in terms of black and white.

But what he really wants is to confuse us with positive-sounding phrases like civil rights while he advocates the exact opposite.

And it’s all in support of his favorite initiative: lining his own pockets with serious green.

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Barb Guy is a regular contributor to these pages.

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