Q & A with Ward Connerly

Ward Connerly
Do you classify yourself as African-American?

No, I don’t.

What about black American?

I have no objection to the word “black” if we are going to polarize the American people into black and white. We have an arbitrary dividing line here, so I guess you would say that I am black, although my skin color is really brown. I consider myself a multiracial person.

Fifty years from now, when the next generation celebrates Black History Month and reflects on history-making black Americans, do you see yourself being remembered?

If there are those who want to simplistically put people in these arbitrary classifications that really don’t fit, I’m not going to spend the rest of my life quivering over it. But I don’t in any way pretend to be a black hero or a black leader. I think that I am an American first. In a precise sense, if words, language and colors have any meaning, I am not black — not too many people are. And what I have been trying to push for is to get the American people to relinquish this preoccupation that we have with race. But if we are going to use these classifications, then at least use them precisely. The fact of the matter is that my ancestors are African, Choctaw Indian, Irish and French, and the least part of me is of African descent. So I then pose the question — Why am I African on that basis? The reason is that American society refuses to honor multiracial identity.

Why do you believe the GOP espouses your values and beliefs?

I believe fiercely in the notion that we are all individuals, and we are all part of an extended human party. More than the Democratic Party, the Republicans embrace the notion that we are all individuals created equal. The Republican Party, though not perfect and often failing, comes closest to my own political values than any other party, except perhaps the Libertarian Party.

Who would you nominate as the greatest American president?

Presidents are a reflection of their times. The times and the challenges of the times tend to make some people greater than they really are, or less. The one president who inspired me an awful lot was John F. Kennedy (JFK). Kennedy’s sense of public service, having people not only think about themselves, but to think of their country. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” (Historic quote from JFK’s 1961 inaugural address). He once said in a 1963 speech on civil rights to the American people: “Race has no place in American life or law.” (Historic quote from JFK’s 1963 Radio and Television Report to the American People on Civil Rights). Kennedy’s vision of public service and his views about race make him one of America’s greatest presidents. He presided over one of the most tumultuous periods in our history, the civil rights movement. I have great affection for the way he handled the crises of his time.

You are known for leading the nationwide fight against racial and gender preferences in higher education and government hiring. What about preferences based on sexual orientation?

I don’t favor that at all. I favor equal treatment for people without regard to their sexual orientation, but I don’t favor any preference based on those considerations.

Do you believe that we are all competing on an even playing field in America?

No, and I don’t think that we ever will be in any venue. People perform at different levels because in many cases, culture and what they consider to be important are major influencers. For example, historically, black people have been attached to the sports venue. So you find that black people perform at a different level than other people, but not because they are born with any greater ability. When I was a kid, I’d wake up in the morning and run out to the basketball court, come home to have a sandwich for lunch, and then I’d go back to the court. That was the culture of my neighborhood.

Do you believe racism and sexism still exist in America today?

Sure it does, and nobody has the monopoly on it. You will find as much racism among black people as you would in anyone else. Lighter-skinned blacks and darker-skinned blacks discriminate against each other. Latinos in some cases don’t have very fond views of other latin cultures. So nobody has the monopoly on racism or sexism.

If a white student applied to a historic black institution of higher learning such as Morehouse College, would you be against racial preference given to them under affirmative action policy?

I would be. We are reaching an important point in this country where we have to critically examine the rationale for government funding of schools that are race-based. We need to question if there is any valid reason for the government to be funding general purpose institutions on the one hand, and then criticizing them because they don’t have enough diversity; and then funding historically black or Latino colleges and empowering them to go out and discriminate in order to get more diversity. It’s upside down, it’s crazy! The day is fast approaching when we are going to have critically re-examine whether it makes sense for us to be funding these race-based institutions.

Should preferences in affirmative action be based solely on need?

Yes. I find it totally appropriate for the government to provide support to those who are economically disadvantaged. It is in our own best interest as a society to make sure we get people who are financially disadvantaged invested in the American system. But that does not mean that all black, brown, or white people are economically disadvantaged.

But you would admit that Census data shows that a larger percentage of African-Americans and Latinos live in lower income households?

I wouldn’t conclude that. I would say, of those who are economically disadvantaged, a disproportionate number in relation to Asian and white happen to be black and Latino. Let’s say we accept that premise. Does that mean the government has the right and authority to give advantages to all blacks and Latinos in order to compensate for their economic disadvantages, therefore confer benefits on non-disadvantaged blacks and Latinos simply because they happen to have the same skin color in the same approximate range as those who are disadvantaged?

The answer is no. The government does not have the right. That is the essence of what we mean by profiling. Should we give an advantage to all people in an arbitrarily defined group, in order to help some of those who are in that group? No. I don’t agree with that.

What legacy do you hope to leave?

I want to be remembered as a guy who loved this country, and loved its ideals of equality, freedom, and a merit-based and entrepreneurial society. No matter how rough the going got, he stayed the course. You couldn’t run him off the stage by calling him names. He was consistent, whether it was defending the rights of gays or whether it was defending the right for people to be treated equally by their government. More than the substance of his policies was the character of the man. Did he have the courage to defend his views, and in that regard, I think history will treat me kindly.

Ward Connerly is founder and chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute, a national, not-for-profit organization aimed at educating the public about the need to move beyond racial and gender preferences. He is an outspoken advocate of equal opportunity for all Americans, regardless of race, sex, or ethnic background. As a member of the University of California Board of Regents, Connerly focused the nation's attention on the University’s race-based system of preferences in its admissions policy. On July 20, 1995, following Connerly’s lead, a majority of the Regents voted to end the University’s use of race as a means for admissions. Under his leadership of the California Civil Rights Initiative (Proposition 209), the campaign successfully obtained more than 1 million signatures and qualified for the November 1996 ballot. California voters passed Proposition 209 by a 55 percent to 45 percent margin. Connerly is also president and CEO of Connerly & Associates, Inc., a Sacramento-based association management and land development consulting firm founded in 1973 by him and his wife, Ilene. He is regarded as one of the housing industry’s top experts, and has been inducted as a lifetime member into the California Building Industry Hall of Fame.