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Conscious of color: he may be the conservative ideologue with the biggest chip on his shoulder about race. (Colorblind: Higher Education).

But why? Jesse Douglas Allen-Taylor says it's worth taking another look at the identity politics of Ward Connerly.

If these were still the times that we sat on our front porches on moonless nights telling spirit tales to the little ones, Ward Connerly would certainly show up as a vodoun bokorin the bushes at the crossroads, seeking to make zombies of living souls. "Mind!" the old ones would warn:

Run to Mama

Hold her tight

Mr. Connerly's a'coming

For to take your rights

In 1995, Connerly pushed through the University of California Board of Regents vote that ended affirmative action in the UC system. A year later, he was the main organizer of Proposition 209, the voter initiative that ended affirmative action in California government programs. Three years later, Connerly helped pass a similar voter initiative in the state of Washington. His latest public endeavor is what he calls the Racial Privacy Initiative. Scheduled for the California ballot in March of 2004, the initiative would halt any classification by race by any state agency. Connerly calls it a needed step toward a "truly colorblind society." His opponents charge that the initiative would effectively end documentation of racial discrimination by government agencies, such as a higher percentage of police stops and searches of black and brown motorists--just at the time when progressives are winning fights to get agencies to provide such documentation.

He argues, vehemently, against the charge that he has ever benefited personally from affirmative action. Yet he, himself, admits in his autobiography (Creating Equal-My Fight Against Race Preferences) that the very platform that allowed him to first attack affirmative action--his post as a member of the UC Board of Regents--was granted to him after a deal was made between California Governor Pete Wilson and the California State Senate to reflect greater diversity in Wilson's appointments to the regents board. When press attention later turned to criticism of Connerly's cozy personal and political relationship with Wilson, he says he was relieved, feeling "less stigmatized by cronyism than 'diversity.'"

In response to his political activities, African American students have booed and heckled Ward Connerly off of college stages across the country.

NAACP Board Chairman Julian Bond has called him a "fraud" and a "con-man."

Dr. Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, director of the Black Leadership Forum, refers to him as an "affluent hired gun."

Jesse Jackson has said that Connerly's California anti-affirmative action Proposition 209 was an exercise in "ethnic cleansing," an epithet with the venomous power once reserved for the term racist.

And it is not just African Americans who are angered with Ward Connerly. In a report on the February 2000 Latino Leadership Summit on Higher Education held at UC Riverside in Southern California, Hector Carreon of La Voz de Aztlan wrote that "[I]n large part, [the] shutting of the doors to higher education to Latinos, is a left over policy of the bigoted ex-governor Pete Wilson and the actions of his appointee, the Uncle Tom UC Regent Ward Connerly." Carreon reported that the summit called for the resignation of Connerly as a UC Regent and his replacement with a Latino. The sentiments are echoed by many other Latino leaders and organizations.

If you were trying to figure out which African Americans are most hated and despised by other African Americans, the 63-year-old Sacramento businessman and University of California Regent would probably be somewhere near the top of the list. He is the quarters-folks' worst fear: the house servant sitting down eating cheese at the master's table, betraying all the secrets.

At the same time, Ward Connerly is the white conservative's dream: a black businessman who unequivocally, and quite effectively, opposes a current core strategy of the civil rights establishment-affirmative action. Connerly's family and personal background do not give him the appearance of authenticity, they are authenticity. Born in segregation-era Louisiana, he has the same core hatred of Jim Crow segregation and church-bombing, hood-wearing segregationists (and their political enablers, like Strom Thurmond and George Wallace) that you would expect from a black man of his generation. He is a millionaire whose life is a stereotype of the fabled American Dream: he worked his own way through college, he never knew his father until he was an adult, and his family members were small business owners and laborers. At the same time, because he is not a politician with the need to seek black or liberal-progressive votes, nor a black businessman subject to the pressure of black boycotts (he operates a management and land development consulting firm with mostly white, affluent clients), Connerly is free to take positions independent of popular black opinion. And though we could give him the benefit of the doubt that it is not his intention, many of Connerly's positions give political cover to those who are unequivocally and undeniably enemies of black progress.

On both sides of the political and racial fence, people long ago made up their minds about Ward Connerly and decided that they pretty much have got him tagged. But, then, there's more going on with this man than any of us have figured out. Maybe not even Ward Connerly himself.

Does He Hate Black People?

I first interviewed Connerly in the winter of 2000. It was shortly after the Danny Clover-New York cabbie incident, and I was writing a story about similar incidents among other prominent and successful blacks. Connerly told me he'd tried to catch a cab after a movie in a D.C. traffic circle the year before. He watched a series of cabs go around the circle, picking up black families and single white males, but passing up all of the individual black males. "I had on a suit, tie, dressed as I normally am," he said. "I just stood there patiently and finally worked my way to the front. A cab pulls up to let somebody out, I walk over, put my hand on the back door to get in, he pulls away. So I backed up quickly, and then the next cab pulls around, and the guy [an Ethiopian] stopped, and I got in. I said, 'What the hell's going on here, with cabs pulling up and then pulling away?' And he said, 'It's your color.' And I said, 'What do you mean, it's my color? The cab drivers are black.' He said, 'Yeah, but they're a fraid.' And that was a rude awakening for me. I'd heard about this problem a little bit, but I'd never faced it personally."

I found it revealing, first that Connerly had only heard "a little bit" about the ongoing stereotyping of black males, given its continued prevalence. But aside from being only remotely aware of the problem, Connerly seemed more surprised than angered when it was he who was the victim. It recalls the plea of Rico Carty, the dark-skinned Dominican Atlanta Braves ballplayer, shouting out while being beaten some years ago by police in a Georgia suburb, "I no nigger. I Rico." You can see Ward Connerly on that D.C. sidewalk, his shoulders beginning to slump, cab after cab passing him by. "I'm no nigger," you can feel him insisting. "I'm Ward."

Some take Connerly's actions and attitudes as an indication that he does not harbor a great affection for African Americans and does not wish to be affiliated with them. In fact, black television commentator Tony Brown, the host of PBS's Tony Brown's Journal and a fellow affirmative action opponent, reportedly once wrote in a letter intended for publication that Connerly "flat out hates black people."

It's a charge you hear often about Connerly. He calls such charges "insulting," and I think they hurt him personally more than he lets on. But though the "black hater" charge goes too far, it's clear that he has "issues" about his relationship to other African Americans, issues which go deep into his family background.

Color Consciousness

When Connerly's family left rural Louisiana in the early 1940s, they first settled in Bremerton, Washington, across the Puget Sound from Seattle. After the war, they moved to Sacramento. Both moves were choices that had wide implications for Connerly's upbringing. In 1940, the entire county of Kitsap, in which Bremerton is located, had a total of 118 black people. Ten years later, not long after Connerly's family moved there, Sacramento County was less than 3 percent black. In the same period, the main black migrations coming out of Louisiana to the West Coast were settling in Oakland, Richmond, and Los Angeles. Alameda County was almost 10 percent black in 1950, and while Los Angeles County was only 5 percent black in the same year, there were 30 times more black people in L.A. as there were in Sacramento. L.A. and the Bay Area were exploding with black culture at the time--a golden era, with big band nightclubs and churches and sports teams and a social life both rich and varied. There was a small black co mmunity in Sacramento, true, in which Connerly's family lived. But growing up in Bremerton and Sacramento helped give Connerly the impetus to enter a white social world--one that he has primarily stayed in for the rest of his adult life.

Some family members say that Connerly's grandmother was "color-struck," a condition common in the black community wherein lighter-skinned blacks are judged to be preferable to darker-skinned blacks. The family members describe Mary Soniea, who raised Connerly, as a "high-yellow" woman who referred to other blacks as "jigaboos" and "baboons" and who tried to keep dark-skinned blacks from marrying into the family. Connerly adamantly denies this in his book. His grandmother's house was "always filled with dark-skinned black people," he writes, and she "never in her life graded anybody by her melanin content." But he goes on to reveal other details that are more telling. In the same book, he describes Soniea as a woman with a "bronze complexion and freckled skin," called an "Indian Princess" as a young woman, and adds that her mother was a mixed Irish and Choctaw Indian woman, who "didn't like dark-skinned people and treated her darker children differently from her lighter-skinned children." He also describes tr ouble between his grandmother and darker-skinned blacks back in Louisiana as "racial animosity." It seems an odd term for a black person to use, unless he did not consider himself the same race as other blacks.

In addition, Connerly says that he learned at the age of 59 that one of his great-grandmothers had been born in slavery. He calls it an "unexpected revelation about my own connection to slavery." Considering she was born somewhere in the 1840s in Louisiana, that's interesting. My own reaction was different when, a few years ago, a cousin handed me a snapshot photograph of Mama Breaux Allen, my own great-grandmother, who lived in slavery in southern Louisiana until she was 19. I remember looking at the hands and fingers of this tiny woman, swollen thick with years of fieldwork and Big House sewing, and feeling, suddenly, the cold breath of the slaver on my own neck. I had always known, in the abstract, that my ancestors had once lived in slavery. Seeing my great-grandmother's picture made that connection suddenly personal, and shocking. I will never look at my daughters' hands, or my mother's hands, or my own hands, again, in the same way. I will never look at slavery again in the same way. Chilling, yes. But not unexpected, unless one did not believe he was black.

Does Ward Connerly believe he is black? He says he does, but his explanation reveals more complications about himself.

Being called black "doesn't give me any anguish at all," he says. "It's like saying 'cereal.' You don't have to say 'Corn Flakes' or 'Wheaties,' you can say 'cereal.' Black and white are generic terms." On the other hand, he explains, he "hates" being called African American. "To ascribe to me the condition of being just African American, when I have one grandparent of African descent, two of Irish descent, one Choctaw Indian, and another who is Canadian-French doesn't give me the chance to be what I want to be. Skin color and the physical attributes of race deny people who are [black] the option of being the fullness of their ancestral parts." Angry at being identified with Africa, too dark to "pass" (an option available only to black folk with features so white and skin color so light that they could cross over the color line and live as white people), and apparently not feeling such a hatred of his own appearance that he was impelled to straighten his hair or bleach his skin, ii la Michael Jackson, Ward C onnerly has chosen instead to crusade to get rid of the concept of race altogether.

Don't Dismiss Him

So what does all of this tell us about Ward Connerly?

First, that we spend far too much time shouting "traitor to your race" in Connerly's direction, to little purpose. One can only be a traitor to a flag to which one has at one point accepted allegiance.

Second, that we ought to afford Connerly the respect that his views on affirmative action and racial classification--whether we agree with those views or not--are legitimately his own. While white conservatives might use him for their own purposes, he is not a puppet.

Finally, progressive people of color ought not to let disagreement with Ward Connerly's political and social goals blind us to confronting the very legitimate and timely questions he raises on race and ethnicity. Connerly is something of an anomaly for a black person of his generation. However, he fits in well with some elements of the hip-hop generation, that part which brags that it has "moved beyond" the confines of race. His views also resonate with large numbers of children of mixed parentage, those admirers of multiracial celebrities like Tiger Woods, singer Mariah Carey, and the actor Vin Diesel, who refuses to identify the dark part of his ancestry because, he says, "There's something cool about this kind of ambiguous, chameleon-like ethnicity." It is to this group that Connerly pitches a good deal of his appeal on issues like the Racial Privacy Initiative and eliminating racial classifications in the census. He has set up a false dichotomy between the role of race in personal identity and the role o f race in the fight for equal rights. But dismissing Ward Connerly our of hand on the issue of racial identity leaves us with few answers for the questions of the multicultural generation.

Ward Connerly is more a part of us than we, or he, want him to be. Reassessing him is part of understanding how to address the problems he reflects, without falling prey to the solutions he advocates.

Jesse Douglas Allen-Taylor has been a columnist, feature writer, and investigative reporter at Oakland's Urban View newspaper and Metro Newspaper, San Jose. His collected writings are at
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Title Annotation:Ward Connerly
Author:Allen-Taylor, Jesse Douglas
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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