Politics & Policy

My Preferences

John McCain, Barack Obama, and civil rights today.

One thing I have learned from more than 13 years of fighting for equal treatment for every American regardless of race, sex, color, or ethnicity is that politicians can triangulate more about this issue than almost any other — and get away with it. A few days ago, Sen. John McCain gave his support to our effort in Arizona to prohibit preferences through a constitutional amendment. In explaining his reason for doing so, McCain said, “I have always opposed quotas.” Instantly, Sen. Barack Obama pounced.

Speaking at a convention of “journalists of color” (the participants gave him standing ovations at the beginning and at the end of his appearance), Obama said, “I am disappointed that John McCain flipped and changed his position. I think in the past he had been opposed to these kinds of Ward Connerly referenda or initiatives as divisive. And I think he’s right. You know, the truth of the matter is, these are not designed to solve a big problem, but they’re all too often designed to drive a wedge between people.”

Having been thrust into a presidential campaign, it is appropriate for me to offer my thoughts.

Over the past ten years, no American president, Congress, legislature, or governor has acted to eliminate preferences — in other words, to enforce the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which commands the government to treat us all “without regard to race, color, national origin or sex.” In addition, the United States Supreme Court has handed down conflicting opinions about the matter.

In response, I have led the national effort to enforce the act through ballot initiatives in states that allow them. I find it interesting that the only people who consider such initiatives “divisive” are the ones who oppose them, such as Sen.Obama. Such people never seem to find preferences themselves “divisive.” Apparently, as long as those who are harmed by such policies — and those who believe preferences are fundamentally wrong — keep their mouths shut, sweet harmony will ring throughout the land.

Also, it seems that Obama is divided against himself on the issue. In his famed “race speech,” when he was trying to appeal to white Democrats to get the issue of Jeremiah Wright off his back, he acknowledged that affirmative action engenders resentment. Just a few days ago, Obama suggested he was ready to support class-based instead of race-based affirmative action: “I am a strong supporter of affirmative action when properly structured so that it is not just a quota, but it is acknowledging and taking into account some of the hardships and difficulties that communities of color may have experienced, continue to experience, and it also speaks to the value of diversity in all walks of American life. We are becoming a more diverse culture, and it’s something that has to be acknowledged.”

I concur, but I might define “properly structured” differently than Obama does. What he fails to say is that it is not only “communities of color” that experience hardships and difficulties. Nor does he say how, as president, he can achieve his stated goal of uniting the American people while asking those not “of color” to look the other way when discriminated against.

If Obama is truly concerned about divisiveness, why didn’t he speak out when his foot soldiers at ACORN were taking pride in blocking our petition circulators from gathering signatures in Missouri? Their despicable tactics of harassment give new meaning to the term “divisive.”

It is true, by the way, that McCain has “flipped” about whether ballot initiatives are appropriate as a device for ending preferences. It is not true that he has “flipped” with regard to preferences themselves. He has consistently expressed disdain for preferential treatment based on race.

And even if he had changed his position substantively, he would be far from alone. Millions of Americans are at a different point in their thinking about race today than they were ten years ago, when McCain opposed legislation to place an initiative on the ballot to end preferences in Arizona. For this, Senator Obama should be thrilled. Without race “flippers,” he would not be the presumptive nominee of the Democratic party for president of the United States.

Until we reach the point that we are living out what Martin Luther King Jr. often called the “true meaning of our creed” that all men (and women) are created equal, how we deal with the issue of race will be a work in progress. Something tells me that, deep in his soul, Sen. Obama knows this. Certainly, he should.

— Ward Connerly is the author of Lessons from my Uncle James and a former regent of the University of California.

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