Affirmative Action: Why Is Ward Connerly Wrong?

DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti explains why Connerly, who argues against a California program that balances admissions to demographics, fails to serve people equally. How can public schools overcome bias?

Luke Visconti's Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.


What I am told in office settings all the time is, "But you're DIFFERENT." It goes like this:

At a meeting we're debating how to raise the level of teaching standards, and someone says everyone starts from how they were raised and taught themselves. I say that my teaching approach has little to do with those, but is informed by my view of the world, my studies, and my desire to do better for future generations. Then someone says that, referring to our majority teachers being Black, that people can't be challenged/expected to change an attitude (ie their philosophical approach to teaching kids)when their culture and life experience come from a certain perspective. That's when I usually remind them that I too am Black, the only one in my family with a college degree, and that my excellent university education was not due to having had significantly more money than most of the community they are speaking about, namely poor/working class Black folks (which is my background as well.)

Then it is a race to see who'll jump in first with, "But you're DIFFERENT."

They turn cause and effect around backwards. People are so used to thinking that higher education comes only from having financial access that they then say, "Oh, you've had THAT kind of education, so you must have had middle class roots, unlike your work peers."

That, or they chalk it up to their unspoken assumption: "must have been some good Affirmative Action..."


I would argue that you ARE different. You have more grit than the average person--regardless of race. A lower socioeconomic background means you live in the lower rungs of Maslow's Hierarchy much more often than the typical middle-class person. Add our society's bigotry to that and you have the perfect mix of circumstances to destroy a person of average perseverance. I'm sure you could tell us of many friends who you felt were as smart as you who simply didn't make it because they just couldn't overcome one catastrophe or another that typically befalls poorer people much more often than wealthy people.

Your e-mail dovetailed into my thoughts about Ward Connerly's recent editorial where he railed against University of California (UC) admissions policies that "discriminate" against Asians. Deceptively, Ward Connerly uses a comment from an unnamed "UC administrator" (who must have eaten paint chips as a child) that "Asians are too dull--they study, study, study" to argue against a program to balance admissions to fit the demographics of the state. It's not about Asians, it's really about his life's work; he and Linda Chavez are the two public faces of the wealthy people who stealthily fund the anti-affirmative action movement.

Connerly takes that "UC administrator's" foolish words and builds a whole case on it (as if that fool was speaking for all UC administrators).

Ultimately, it is the University of California's obligation--and the obligation of EVERY publicly funded school (or private school that accepts any tax breaks, including property tax exemptions)--to serve the people EQUALLY. Where society has failed public education, which is sharply divided by socioeconomic level, it is the public school of higher education's OBLIGATION to force a solution. This isn't "social engineering" as Connerly calls it; it's how our country works.

Our government, which derives its power from "the people," does not serve "we the people" (read the preamble of the Constitution) by maintaining an apartheid education system. Education quality in this country is directly relative to relative wealth. Wealth is primarily defined around racial lines.

Here's where every American has to answer a question: "Do you believe people are created equally?"

If you do, then we have to realize that we have a fundamental problem: We're not treating people equally. Affirmative action is just a stop-gap measure to attempt to overcome disparities in how our country allocates the basic building block of governmental service: education.

This relatively new affirmative action is the inverse of the traditional affirmative action that has been practiced since the start of our country. From Bushrod Washington (George's nephew) to our last president, people have been given special access to the best opportunities based on who they are, not how talented or accomplished they are. Many of the problems our country have been the work of middling talented sons and daughters of very wealthy people who were given special access despite having no outside strife or disadvantage in their lives. Good affirmative action attempts to overcome the bias in our society by providing access to groups of people who are FORMALLY prevented from having equal access.

Yes, FORMALLY. The disaster that is the public school system in Newark would not be tolerated for five minutes where I grew up (eight miles from Newark). The parents of my hometown would run the administrators AND the unions out of town on a rail. The difference? The parents of my hometown are relatively wealthy. They have access to information and almost all of them were educated in far better school systems than the parents in Newark. We may argue on how accountable you can hold the parent-victims of a bad school system, but only bigots turn their back on the Black and Latino child victims of the government-run child abuse that's occurring daily in Newark. (Click here to read about the DiversityInc Foundation.) I agree with Attorney General Holder: We are cowards when it comes to discussing race.

I will cut the Newark school system a little slack by pointing out that it's only logical that public schools are open 365 days a year in poor neighborhoods--and that they serve three hot meals a day (even to parents). This investment would likely have an enormous return, probably far greater than the 8-to-1 return on investment for the GI Bill (which gave returning World War II and Korean War veterans free college educations).

You may flinch at this, but I think No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is the first step on a path to enforce standards of performance for schools that are independent of socioeconomic class. Where NCLB failed is that it needed to provide funding to bring promising/performing schools up to commensurate infrastructure and teacher-quality standards.

Connerly and his spiritual sister Linda Chavez provide arguments designed to whip up hate in ignorant people. They enable people to say "YEAH, it's THEIR problem." Our nation became strong by enabling many people to achieve. The better we enable, the stronger we will be--because it's OUR problem when talent cannot reach its potential. It's that simple.

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