In 1995, Ward Connerly and his fellow regents at the University of California voted to end preferences in admissions. Before that vote, being black, Latino, or Native American in California got you into a top-flight school even when you were among the least qualified candidates. Skin color alone was the deciding factor. There was, Connerly found, as much outright racial profiling going on in the UC system as there was on the New Jersey Turnpike. By the random logic of race preferences, it seemed that traffic cops should have been dispensing letters of admission to those they stopped for driving while black.
Contradictory or not, though, preference paladins like USA Today columnist DeWayne Wickham still apply this double standard on racial profiling: “Affirmative action, then and now, is meant to undo the continuing acts of discrimination—actions that are very often systematic and targeted at people solely because they belong to a particular racial or ethnic group.” Wickham is right: It’s immoral, not to mention unconstitutional, to target people racially. But his argument for affirmative action dissolves on the same grounds. Moreover, if what’s happening in California is any indication, it’s largely irrelevant.
Figures obtained from the University of California by The Los Angeles Times show that in 1997, the last year affirmative action applied, UC Berkeley accepted 562 blacks, 69 American Indians, 1266 Latinos, 2925 Asians, and 2911 whites. In 1999, Berkeley accepted 276 blacks, 39 American Indians, 741 Latinos, 3196 Asians, and 3018 whites. While to some these numbers prove that abolishing preferences decimated minority populations at UC’s best schools, to others they prove that whites and, more importantly, Asians were being shafted by affirmative action.
But the Times reported a more telling statistic in its 1999 article: “The combined number of blacks, Latinos and American Indians admitted to the University of California [systemwide] this year  bounced back nearly to the level of 1997 .” So, minorities who would have been admitted to Berkeley and UCLA in 1997 were not, as some feared, being shut out, but were being redistributed to less competitive schools, where they were more likely to graduate.
But even that is changing. Connerly’s plan offered an answer to the real problem affirmative action was meant to address but didn’t—the lousy primary and secondary education minority kids are still receiving. Thus, it made the development of outreach programs a mandatory part of ending preferences—and it’s working. Now aggressive recruiting, tutoring, and counseling are going on at California’s junior highs, high schools, and even elementary schools. Black admissions at Berkeley rose 45 percent between 1998 and 1999. With outreach those numbers will keep improving.
Since preferences are turning out to be unnecessary as well as unfair, maybe most of Connerly’s opponents (with the notable exception of Derek Bok and William Bowen, authors of the pro-affirmative action The Shape of the River) won’t be so uncivil. Abuse and guerrilla tactics used to be the norm—during one speech at Emory University, Connerly was drowned out by hecklers screaming, “Go back to California, you Oreo.” It’s commonplace for white liberals to call Connerly by that other nugatory byword: Uncle Tom. Jesse Jackson even dared to call Connerly “strange fruit”—a term used to describe lynching victims. Others have branded Connerly “a lawn jockey for the ruling class.”
It takes much more courage and conviction to endure such shameful racist invective than it takes to hurl it. Connerly’s new book, Creating Equal (put out by Encounter Books, who is also my publisher), deserves better. It deserves an honest reading and a fair critique. If only because Connerly understands the complexity of the issue.
When I spoke to him last week, Connerly described how his thinking has evolved: “Yes, I’m still interested in equality. I’m still interested in fairness. I’m still interested in the fact that we’re breaking the law in many cases. But I’m more motivated now than ever by the fact that you can be freed by your government to move about in the economy, to transact every day with different people. You can be freed legally—and that happened—but until you feel that you are capable of navigating that system, until you honestly believe you’re not totally beholden to what somebody else gives you, you’re not free.”