Ward Connerly Won the Battle — Now He’s Facing the War

The anti-affirmative action crusader struggles with the consequences of his own success.

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

Sacramento businessman and university of California regent Ward Connerly professes amazement at the attacks and public scrutiny he has received for successfully campaigning — first at the University of California and then statewide with last year’s passage of Proposition 209 — to eliminate racial preferences. He’s been called a “houseboy” and a “paid assassin.” And at a rally this summer protesting the implementation of 209, Jesse Jackson accused him of promoting “ethnic cleansing.”

“I must really have hit a nerve to get such attention,” Connerly says. “I guess I’m having some influence.”

This is false modesty. Connerly knows that among those who support minority preferences in hiring and admissions, he is feared and despised. Not only have affirmative action supporters labeled him a racist, but he has even received a mortifying public psychoanalysis in the New York Times.

Implicitly asking what trauma could be hidden in the childhood and psychological makeup of this black man that would lead him to challenge the policies intended to help black people, reporter Barry Bearak dug deep into Connerly’s past (going so far as to locate Connerly’s estranged father, who was believed dead) to find that the grandmother who raised him may have had questionable views about race. Bearak found it “intriguing” that other relatives remember Connerly’s grandmother, who was part-Irish and part-Choctaw, as an “out-and-out bigot” and “openly scornful of black people.” One relative told Bearak, “Maybe that’s why Ward decided to be as much of a white boy as he could.”

“The implication of the article is that if I was raised by a racist, then I might be an out-and-out bigot myself,” Connerly says. “I found this excavation of my past odd and totally unnecessary. No one does this sort of searching article on the people who disagree with me.”

Connerly believes people should spend more time examining his arguments against affirmative action and less time focusing on his personal motivations. These arguments are not insubstantial. Even a cursory look at the University of California’s admissions record will tell you what every college-bound high school senior in the past decade has known: Race has played a disturbingly large role in a candidate’s chances at college acceptance. While UC Berkeley, for example, turned away nearly 6,000 straight-A students this year, it also accepted many underrepresented minority applicants with grade point averages of 3.0 or lower.

The first admissions statistics under the new colorblind policies gave evidence to Connerly’s contention that the university was not, as administrators often claimed, using race as one small factor among many others. Even though the likes of Jesse Jackson have used the 81 percent drop in the number of admission offers to African Americans from Berkeley’s Boalt Hall law school as proof of the evil nature of Connerly’s work, this same statistic might be taken as evidence that the university was weighing race far more heavily than the U.S. Supreme Court’s University of California v. Bakke decision ever intended to allow.

Indeed, Connerly’s objections are very much in line with recent court decisions which held that the use of racial preferences must pass “strict scrutiny,” as opposed to “intermediate scrutiny” (the standard for Bakke). Arguments for racial preferences based on historical discrimination do not, according to these decisions, clear the “strict scrutiny” hurdle. An appellate court also rejected arguments for preferences based on the need for campus diversity. Connerly may have saved UC the embarrassment of having its policies declared unconstitutional.

The university deserves sympathy for trying. It was, after all, given the undue burden of making amends for an educational system that was unfair at its core — a fact hidden by heavy-handed admissions policies ensuring that a freshman class mirror the state’s population. Connerly’s “cold turkey” withdrawal of racial preferences has sent administrators and policy wonks scrambling to address what everyone has always agreed was the major problem underlying the need for affirmative action: the gross inequities in the quality of education in elementary schools and high schools across the state.

Connerly’s victories, and the attacks he has suffered, appear to have taken a personal toll. He has visibly aged in the year since I last talked to him, before the passage of 209. There is more gray in his carefully trimmed mustache; the bags around his eyes are deeper. He is aware of the repercussions of his victories, and he admits to having experienced some “jitteriness” after hearing about the drop in minority admission offers at Boalt Hall. Recently, he’s been doing some soul-searching of his own about how to deal with the educational inequalities thrown into such dramatic relief by his victories. Having won his battles, he is a man with the dawning sense of the war left to fight — and, on at least one critical point, he’s changed his thinking.

A year ago, Connerly was taking a hard line against UC programs designed to help low-income or low-performing schools, believing that the university might be using buzzwords like “geographic diversity” and “low income” as a screen for continuing to give preferences based on race.

Yet in a July interview just a few days before the regents will meet to vote on a proposal to double outreach money to the state’s 50 lowest-performing schools, Connerly admits he is leaning toward a “yes” vote. When asked why he is no longer suspicious about this sort of outreach, Connerly denies that the programs have anything to do with race.

“I am probably going to support the outreach programs but not because we have taken away affirmative action,” he says. “There is no nexus between these two things.”

Still, it is not hard to show a connection. The proposal specifically notes that four out of five of the students in the schools to be targeted with the new money are “African American, American Indian, or Latino.” University officials may be talking in terms of “low income” and “poor schools,” but it’s no secret that everyone is thinking about race.

Presented with this fact, Connerly thinks for a moment in silence. “Look, of course I’m thinking about race, too,” he says at last. “We cannot, as a multiracial society that prides itself on equality, ignore the fact that there is a humongous gap between the competitiveness of black kids and white and Asian kids. It would be irresponsible to ignore that. Damn it, we had better be concerned about it.”

This seems like no small shift in thinking for the man who has sworn devotion to the idea of utter colorblindness. “So you are admitting that these programs will address racial inequalities?” I ask.

“Yes, that’s my hope,” Connerly says, quickly adding, “but it’s not my intent.” Is there a difference between hope and intent?

“There is a big difference. When I say it is my intent to do something, I am consciously trying to produce a certain result. When I say it is my hope that one of the results will be the following, I have no expectation of it,” he says.

This distinction is more than just academic. As Connerly knows quite well, Proposition 209, which became law this past summer, specifically forbids state agencies from spending money on programs targeting racial groups. If the university draws too clear a connection between the outreach programs and their desired impact on specific racial communities, the whole thing may be declared illegal under 209. Connerly, in short, may run afoul of his own law.

“There is a real problem there,” he admits with a sigh. “It’s a legal question. The minute you know you are spending money in a black neighborhood, are you giving preferential treatment? If it’s the university’s intent to help black people specifically, then we will be violating 209.”

Connerly, who only a year ago portrayed himself as a man of strict moral principle on the matter of colorblindness, is now in the uncertain gray area that many other anti-preferences crusaders may soon find themselves. The question is: How do you address the clear inequities between communities when you have barred yourself from considering the fact that many of these inequities often fall along racial lines?

A few days later at the regents meeting, Connerly takes the time to “strongly object” to language in the outreach proposal that implies the programs will help students of particular ethnic backgrounds. “I am supporting this report but not as a strategy for ‘building diversity,'” he says to the board.

Despite his objections, he quietly votes for the proposal. It passes unanimously. Soon after the vote, a new wave of criticism rolls in on Connerly. This time, it’s for waffling. Wearily, Connerly again defends his new position in the gray area between hope and intent.

“If someone says to me that I am not being totally consistent, I’m not going to worry about that criticism,” he says. “I don’t give a shit if people say I’m wavering. Too many people take hardline positions for fear of being accused of waffling. I’ve never said I’ve had all the answers. I’m just trying to do the right thing.”

Ethan Watters’ new book, The Fall of Therapy, will be published next fall.


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaires wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2024 demands.

payment methods


Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2024 demands.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.