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Ward Connerly’s Comments at the DiversityInc Conference

Since the term “affirmative action” was first uttered by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, it has been the subject of intense debate and controversy. That debate continued at DiversityInc’s learning event in Washington, D.C., in March 2011 when anti-affirmative-action leader Ward Connerly took to the stage and argued that the government should not be in the business “of picking winners and losers based on factors such as skin color.”

Connerly told the audience of senior diversity-management executives that he believes affirmative action is a form of racism and that people can achieve success without preferential treatment in college enrollment or in employment.

Connerly, president of the American Civil Rights Institute, who is best known for leading the state-to-state effort to roll back affirmative action, described himself as a crusader for “a colorblind society” and argued that dismantling affirmative action will force the government to treat all its citizens equally regardless of their racial background.

“We’re not trying to end all affirmative action. We’re trying to end the practice of the government making distinctions between its citizens and preferring some, by giving extra points. That disadvantages one over the other,” said Connerly. “I’ve always believed that if everyone has an equal chance to compete and if we believe in the view that we’re all created equally by the good Lord, then diversity will be the outcome.”

Responding to a critique from the audience that he misleads voters, Connerly said, “I really take exception with the notion that we’re trying to mislead people, that we’re being disingenuous. If there is disingenuity there, it’s mutually shared by our opponents as well as us.”

Visconti then took Connerly to task for billing the initiative to end affirmative action as “a civil-rights cause,” noting that thousands of voters have been duped into signing petitions and voting in favor of measures over the years because they’re typically described as bans on discrimination instead of attacks on programs that help women and people from traditionally underrepresented groups.

“If I asked you to vote for a civil-rights initiative, would you vote for it? Yes. That was the title of the law that was passed in Michigan that was against affirmative action,” Visconti said. “I respect you for being here and I respect the civil dialogue we’ve had here but I disagree with you on that point. The language on all these bills is misleading. The ramp up was misleading. Black people were hired to hand out petitions for the civil-rights initiative in Michigan. It was disingenuous. It was not the proper way of doing things. When American are confronted with the choice of being fair or unfair, they overwhelmingly want to be fair because we know we have a legacy and we have to move forward. That is where we have to focus on the solution … and that solution is affirmative action. In utopia, we may not need it anymore. But none of us will live that long. None of us.”

Connerly explained that he had an uncle who often reminded him when he was a young child that “even the smallest pancake has two sides.”

“It’s in that spirit that I’ve always tried to—unsuccessfully in the media’s eyes—understand those two sides,” Connerly said. “At times it seems like our world is coming unraveled … and we have a very difficult time [uniting] around anything. One of the reasons for that is we’re very hesitant to venture beyond our own comfort zone. Believe me, it is somewhat intimidating to venture into an audience where you know that probably everyone has a strong disagreement with your own view.”

Going one step further, Connerly told the audience he does not think people should be classified on the basis of race at all. He said, “I just don’t think the government should be in that business of making us check boxes and classifying us like a bunch of animals.”

Addressing Connerly, Weldon H. Latham, senior partner at Jackson Lewis and noted civil-rights attorney, said that during the course of his career, he had “written more articles responding to you than probably any other subject.”

“I would love to sit down and chat with you because I don’t understand how you landed on this earth,” Latham said. “We’d love to have a level playing field. We’d love to take away preferences. But you jump way ahead. You want to fight hard to eliminate the solution before you eliminate the problem.”

Latham said that because past presidents have “devalued the Office of Civil Rights and held back on enforcing the law,” today, much of the work around affirmative action is being championed by corporate America, which recognizes the value of diversity and inclusion.

“Companies stepped up and said we have to do it, not because we’re nice guys but because we like to win,” Latham said.

Gilbert Casellas, former head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and former chief diversity officer at Dell, No.26 in The 2012 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity (No. 30 on the 2011 list), told Connerly that his drive to end affirmative action was “divorced from historical reality and social context.”

“You are a soft-spoken guy and speak in a reasonable voice, but unfortunately those views are also espoused by folks at the fringe of our society and they espouse them in very hateful ways,” Casellas said. “Research demonstrates that at the retail individual level, there is still unconscious bias … and so we have to do things to overcome that. We have to take affirmative steps to make sure that those unconscious biases are not driving us to certain places. At the wholesale level, at the structural level, there are still disparities. They happen today and continue to exist, so we can’t divorce ourselves from the reality. Those disparities … can’t be allowed in a democratic society to persist. And that is the role of government: to equalize it.”

Lora Fong, corporate counsel at Salesforce.com, told Connerly that while she appreciates the goal of one day living in “a colorblind society,” she does not think she will live to see that day during her lifetime. In the interim, she said it is imperative to safeguard the rules currently in place that benefit disadvantaged and underrepresented groups.

“There are real human costs with opportunities that are lost … We can bandy about statistics but it really only takes one lost genius who missed an opportunity to create a deficit for this country,” Fong said. “I appreciate the goal of having a colorblind society. It is not where we are now, so what are going to do about it? In the interim and as far as corporate America goes … who are we going to hire if the government doesn’t perpetuate and move toward this compelling state interest of making sure our public education system and our government workers are populated with diversity? This is supposed to be a government of the people, by the people, for the people. I didn’t make those words up, but they resonate with me and I’m sure they resonate with many of you.”

For her part, Dr. Ella Bell, professor at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and founder of ASCENT, said she thinks it is time to redesign, reframe and rethink what is meant by the term “affirmative action” because the issue is so much broader today than simply Black and white.

“The historical moment when affirmative action was created is not here anymore,” Dr. Bell said. “It is a very different historical moment. We need to design an intervention that will fit this particular historical moment. When we think about affirmative action, the term just seems to get everyone crazy. You can’t use that term any more. It’s not effective. When we think about affirmative action, we don’t think about Hispanics. We don’t think about Asians or people with disabilities. Why?  Because affirmative action in most people’s minds is Black and white. This is no longer a Black-and-white world. You want to be competitive as a company. You cannot be competitive if you just think Black and white.”

Why did DiversityInc invite Connerly? The idea originated with DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti, who wanted to show the audience what the opposition is thinking. Connerly, who said he respects DiversityInc, agreed to appear if he could speak alone, rather than be part of a panel. The panel, which consisted of Visconti, three legal experts on civil rights, and a professor, refuted his arguments. Connerly decided to stay and listen to the panel and rebut their arguments from the audience floor.

According to DiversityInc’s feedback survey from the attendants, Connerly and the panel were the most highly rated segments of the two-day event.

Connerly said his staff strongly advised him not to accept DiversityInc’s invitation to speak at its conference. “They said it’s like subjecting yourself to a firing squad with everyone having a high-powered weapon and unlimited ammunition, but I rejected that counsel,” he said.



18 Comments

  • Anonymous

    I find it interesting that the memory of Connerly is so short. He has forgotten that the Constitution was suppose to afford all Americans equal treatment..yet the GOVERNMENT let the people that oppose equal rights thrive for a couple hundred years. So now he says the same government will do what is right with out the use of LAW!! Please allow me the opportunity to have free labor for 2 hundreds and deny those workers education and related rights, so I can become rich enough to say..I’m sorry and lets not make any laws so those folks we got so wealthy off can catch up..what is wrong with that picture??
    RB

  • Anonymous

    Mr. Connerly’s words are engaging for all to hear. However, you cannot get ” the government to treat all its citizens equally regardless of their racial background” until you can get individuals to treat all its citizens equally regardless of their racial background. Look at how the President of the United States is being treated.

  • Anonymous

    For a man who stands where he stands today – in this country – at this time in history – Ward Connerly is remarkably, offensively blind to the role affirmative action has played in his own rise to success. By his logic – the U.S. should never have interferred with slavery – leaving each indentured man, woman & child to negotiate their personal freedom from southern masters whov would without a doubt first weigh the economic consequences of freeing a slave – to the widely-held opinions of whites that blacks were 1st animals, next rightfully owned chattel & 2nd incapable of the level of intellectual ability of any white, were to be subgated for life lest the black rever to being an animal. Ridiculous! I suppose were this country somehow able to “forget” it’s 400+ years of history – wiping the legacy and memory of subjugation, persecution, discrimination and still widely-held belief in white superiority from the minds of 50%+ of the U.S. population who holds those beliefs ingrained and passed down for generations -it may be possible for todays’ society to wipe the slate clean and become color-blind in all its institutions – both public and private. But I don’t think so.

    Perhaps it would’ve been better – prior to making such a grandstand for the exact opposite of the still much-needed observance and adherence to federal diversity laws – that Mr. Conley either tune into to CNN, the New York Post, or maybe ask any black person who crosses his path how that whole “birther” thing is working out for President Obama?

  • Anonymous

    Mr. Connerlyy got his, nowhe wants to stop others? He lives in a delusional wordl where he thinks ALL whiteLouisia folk love him and do not need the law to make them to what is conscienably right. I wish there would be such a world in my lifetime. Louisia Fuller

  • Anonymous

    Ward Connnerly states that “I’ve always believed that if everyone had an equal chance to compete and if we believe that we’re all created equally by the good Lord, then diversity will be the outcome.” But we don’t live in a perfect world where everyone has an equal chance to compete, and we can’t ensure fairness by merely doing nothing. Human beings tend to make subjective decisions, and we can’t rely on all people doing the right thing. In that case, we wouldn’t need any government laws or policies, including affirmative action.

  • Anonymous

    W. Connerly’s words sound like those of a beauty pageant contestant, ” my goal is to end all wars and world hunger”. Who would possibly be against such a utopic idea. The real world makes this lofty idealistic mantra sound naive, uninformed and without compassion for those that are the objects of oppression. – suffering from live/active current acts of discrimination. Connerly also perpetuates , “The BIG LIE”– that Affirmative Action is synonomous with “preferential treatment”. He ignorantly dismisses the fact that the group most benefited by Affirmative Action legislation has been White Women. Sadly, the world that W. Connerly describes ..where we are all in a level playing field”.. does not exist. Therefore, one is compelled to analyze Connerly’s ability to accurately assess the “real world” or question if there is some other motive for his promotion of such absurdity. The truth unfolds by following the “money trail”. Review Connerly”s financial support and income growth since he began advocating this concept and the masked man is fully exposed.

  • Anonymous

    Mr. Connerly; don’t even include us, Native Americans in your mission. It is 2011
    and we are still not equal to dominate society and even to your people. I think the
    world of President Obama – dominate society is not color blind when it comes to
    black, white and brown. Our President represents Black and White but to the Whites
    they only see the Black so what does that tell us?

  • Anonymous

    hy would you have an anti-affirmative action mant speak at a pro-diversity meeting? If AA were done away with, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but eventually institutionalised racism would slowly work its will, and we’d be back to pre-Civil Rights segregation again. Some “fixes” are better than doing nothing at all. Fine tune and adjust AA – Don’t do away with it!

  • Anonymous

    Interesting article. I strongly disagree with the guest who wrote “to the Whites they only see the Black”. I am white and I have tried very hard to support the President even though I disagree with many of his policies. I go out of my way to show great respect for him because I realize how important President Obama’s election is to our country historically. Oh, did I mention I am a conservative Republican and I voted for him.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t want to live in a “color blind” society. I want to value and celebrate differences. I want to share and learn about people and cultures diffrent from mine. Our country is rich with color. I would hate to lose that. I also believe our culture is so ingrained in who we are as human beings that by not accepting ones color, you don’t accept the whole person.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with commenters about Mr. Connerly’s “amnesia” of how he benefitted handsomely from affirmative action. His rants are similar to foreigners who came to the U.S. became successful, only to close the door on other foreigners. For individuals like Connerly, he should be kissing the program that allowed him academic and business success. But, indivudals like him do not surprise me. He is one who drains the pool of opportunity so that others can’t.

  • Anonymous

    This gentleman has obviously bought into the lie that the USA is a color-blind soicety. Affirmative Action is needed to help level the playing field. The systems that govern this country are rooted in institutionalized racism– a fact that resonates within every facet of our society. It is a reality that must be reckoned with. I am quite sure that Mr. Connerly has benefitted from Affirmative Action himself. Do not believe the hype!!!!

  • Anonymous

    The curse and blessing of privilege has robbed Mr. Connerly of clear sight. In a perfect world, his idealism would be ideal. Far from perfect, this society is far from poised to apply his beliefs on Affirmative Action. As long as we have to ask the question about race, with the same group out-performing in terms of education, career opportunity and wealth, there will never be equal opportunity to assess the American dream. Too many broken promises, false starts and self-entitled over-consumption in America to nuture this kind of idealism. Get real Mr. Connerly..

  • Mr. Conerly persists in the myth that affirmative steps to level the playing field somhow favors thse disadvantaged on the less than level field. he might as well complain that measures to help the handicapped by blindness or physical characteristics or even that veteran’s preferences are unfair in some way to non-veterans.
    the best way to deal with him and other purveyors of such non-sense is to ignore them and refuse to take them seriously. As a society we hve wasted more than enough time on Mr. Connerly and his absurdities.

  • Anonymous

    Allow me to translate Mr. Connerly’s perspective: I got mine, now you get yours. That’s what he’s really saying. It is difficult for me to believe that Mr. Connerly believes systemic and balatant racism would not find find it’s way back into our culture (indeed, I would argue that it’s never left) full-blown. To Mr. Connerly, I say that I am happy you were able to achieve your successes but don’t begrudge others who are still struggling to achieve and may and will need government assistance in order to do so.

  • Anonymous

    The irony of Ward Connelly’c statements calling affirmative action programs “preference programs”—-affirmative action programs were established to ELIMINATE “preferences” (for the majority) not create preferences. If preferences for the “majority were eliminated there would be no need for affirmative action programs.

  • Experience has proven that a color-blind state has only been achieved through “total blindness.” Experience has proven that laws are made when the issues under their protection have been violated. Experience has also proven that laws are often broken and just as we have police, courts, and penalties to remedy violations, we have affirmative action to prevent discrimination. Our efforts are not perfect nor totally successful, but until we find a better solution, they are all we have. Mr. Connerly tells us of his beliefs, but what are his experiences, his reality?

  • That’s like the charity argument that cutting off govt assist and helps will make churches do it. Though they never did it well and not every one goes to church.
    We see, with many wrongful termination and work comp lawsuits, most people only do the right thing when they are required AND when there are greater consequences for not.
    Or maybe we should get rid of jails cause accroding to Connerly and others most people will do the right thing if left to their own devices?
    They ignore the realities of what people are willinf to do and not do for what they think will get them more money and /or power.

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