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.