Creating Equal: My Fight Against Race Preferences
Reviewed by Joe Lockard
Tuesday, May 16 2000, 8:50 PM
After this autobiography was released, Ward Connerly published an op-ed essay in the New York Times denouncing the bookstore "ghettos" of African-American literature where his new volume had been shelved. Why, he asked, did major bookseller chains perpetuate apartheid in their store arrangements?
If we take Connerly at face value, then my bookshelf arrangements must evidence my racism. For ease of reference, I group together African-American, Native American, Hispanic, Jewish and several other ethnic literatures on my shelves. My shelf of Asian-American fiction is woefully deficient, which a tendentious literalist might understand as more than simply lack of reading time. That I have actually taught African-American literature as a discrete academic course surely compounds these separatist sins, for that only elevates all these falsely divided American books into falsely divided American literatures. To admit the fact that there is a Hebrew literature collection confined to separate shelves in another room would be no less than to be a ghetto builder.
Bookstores may have persuasive arguments on their arrangements, based on category recognition and consumer demand, but book lovers have another: we take pride in those hard-found, expensive books that describe communities, histories and the specificities of struggles. Wallace Thurman's Infants of the Spring sits next to George S. Schuyler's Black Empire on my shelf and they create a statement about the experience of blackness in America. Literatures, like people who create them, have their differences.
Like a good bookstore, my library tries to balance particularisms within an overarching universalism. To deny the variability of human cultures is to impose a suffocating demand for uniformity, creating a globalizing blandness little different from those martinet nationalisms that would impose single cultural identities. Acknowledging and learning about cultural differences does not negate human commonality and equality, so I shall not be rearranging my shelves anytime soon. To assert that the current organization of bookstore sections constitutes 'apartheid', as does Connerly, trivializes the meaning of the word and negates the state violence that created and maintained this system.
Such obnoxious rhetoric and its ahistoricity are stock-in-trade for Connerly, whose pronouncements have reached a high degree of predictability. Connerly believes in 'writing out' race throughout American society, a belief that shapes his opposition to everything from affirmative action at universities to teaching African-American literature within them.
As this autobiography makes clear, Connerly's family origins heavily interlace his racial attitudes. He was born to a poor mixed-blood black family in segregated Louisiana and as a child migrated with his extended family to the West Coast during World War II. Ending up with his family in Sacramento, he began a social climb that he reports in Horatio Alger-esque terms. No juvenile misbehavior here: just a dedication to family, school and the invigoration of hard work. The absence of introspection that marks Connerly's writing perhaps begins here, with the easily perceptible lack of candor of a juvenile Goody-goody Twoshoes.
Connerly's brief brushes with racism in 1950s Sacramento were mild compared to that he experienced in college when he began dating and then in 1962 married Ilene, a white fellow Sacramento State student from rural northern California. After prolonged rejection by his wife's family, their relations finally mended
Connerly is at his most sympathetic here. During the fight over anti-affirmative action Proposition 209 the attacks on Connerly as a 'race traitor' for marrying a white woman -- particularly by state senator Diane Watson -- were ugly and extraordinarily offensive. Connerly writes with conviction on his interracial marriage: "A successful interracial marriage is by its nature an exercise in color blindness. You see that the other person you wake up next to every morning not as a representative of a race, but just as a person with high and low moments. You stop thinking: this is a white person. You begin thinking: this is my wife. Then the kids come along. You don't think: that child is part black and part white."
Indeed. However it is a first-class fallacy to impose that private relationship on a broad range of social relations that have been shaped by histories of racial hierarchy, segregation, and intense economic deprivation. White and black America, to take one primary racial pairing in the United States, do not collectively awake each morning in the same bed, share coffee, and leave for work together. They awake most often on different sides of town and face very different opportunities in life, a social separation that is best remedied by the shared education that Proposition 209 and similar-spirited measures will limit and reverse.
Based on his family experience, Connerly 'writes out' race as an explanatory force in the shape of the world we have received. He argues legitimately that race is a false order of human classification, and then proceeds to argue illegitimately that social policy should take no account of the effects of inequalities created by racism. Color-blindness becomes an inflexible social absolutism, an icon whose worship defeats its own purpose. Connerly thrives best when beating straw-man arguments. There are few so foolish today as to see in human taxonomies a comprehensive social epistemology, but there are all too many ready and willing to deny ethnicity and 'race' any explanatory presence in describing or addressing social problems.
It comes as little surprise that those who refuse to account for racism are also those who suffer its limitations the least. Connerly emerges from a class of black conservatives who seek to impose their own prescriptions on black communities that overwhelmingly reject the image of a blackface Horatio Alger as a role model for their children. It is this same class that provides intellectual and political cover for latent or not-so-latent white racism that views black culture with contempt. While there was detestable incivility among Emory students who met his campus appearance screaming "Oreo!" and similar insults, Connerly never recognizes the extent to which his collaboration with the racial status quo -- in the name of anti-racism, of course -- has alienated him from the black community that he wishes to benefit. Instead, he tells readers again and again of encounters with blacks who have taken him aside to praise his politics.
As Connerly sketches his rising economic fortunes in Sacramento, one gets insight into how government and insidership combine to create wealth. Connerly begins at the Sacramento Redevelopment Agency, transfers to the California Department of Housing and Community Development, departs for the Housing and Urban Affairs Committee under the chairmanship of California senator Pete Wilson, and returns to the Department of Housing as its chief deputy director. Along the way he acquires rental housing properties and a close exposure to the route paths of California's housing programs. He becomes a 'name' that California politicians recognize in the field of housing and redevelopment. With these advantages, achieved because he was a lone black conservative face among housing bureaucrats suspect for their putative liberalism, Connerly opens his consulting business, working largely for the California building industry. Over the next few years he becomes a millionaire, his old friend Pete Wilson becomes governor, and Connerly gets appointed to the University of California's Board of Regents. Nowhere in relating this personal history does it occur to Connerly to question this system or his role within it.
The story of Connerly's role in ending affirmative action at the University of California and in pushing Proposition 209 into the national limelight begins in the middle of the book and is well-known. What Connerly's re-narration of the story emphasizes, perhaps without his full cognizance, is how much these campaigns have done to define his own persona.
Connerly today is as much the creation of anti-affirmative action politics as he is their creator. He lives within these racial politics and cannot seem to escape them in order to address other issues. In a perverse manner, Connerly has become a 'race man' and lives within a trap of his own making, fulminating against 'preferences' instead of against prejudices and discrimination. His autobiography only draws that trap tighter.
Creating Equal is published by Encounter Books