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Week of 8.29.08

Transcript: Attacking Affirmative Action

BRANCACCIO: When Barack Obama walked into that stadium back there and accepted his party's nomination for president, so many had cause to celebrate this milestone in American democracy. But not everyone is celebrating for the same reason. There are some who point to Obama's nomination as proof that there is no longer a need for the government policies designed to help minorities and women get ahead in the worlds of business and education. And with the elections around two months away, they are asking voters in some states to put an end to affirmative action. Is the country ready? Na Eng produced our report.

OBAMA: I accept your nomination!

BRANCACCIO: When Barack Obama took to the mile high stage Thursday night —it was, for many Americans, the realization of a dream deferred.

OBAMA: What the nay-sayers don't understand is that this election has never been about me. It's been about you.

BRANCACCIO: But this was not just a super bowl-sized political rally. It is a first for the 232-year old United States of America....a black man this close to becoming president.

OBAMA: It is that promise that forty five years ago today, brought Americans from every corner of this land to stand together on a mall in Washington, before Lincoln's Memorial, and hear a young preacher from Georgia speak of his dream.

BRANCACCIO: But while some see these breakthroughs as signs of progress on a long highway toward social equality... others see this as evidence that we have already made it to the destination.

CONNERLY: The success of Senator Obama, it seems to me, makes it very difficult for those who believe that our society is "institutionally racist" to make that argument, because how can it be that our society is so racist that they would anoint him with all of this success?

BRANCACCIO: Connerly is aiming to put that question to voters in statewide ballot initiatives this fall. The conservative activist is seizing on Obama's success to make a new argument in a not-so-new—and some say not very honest- debate.

CONNERLY: I know some very conservative Republicans who believe that a vote for him would: 1) send the message to black people that you're full Americans and this is your country. You own stock now in this country. And you should be proud of that fact, because there's your guy sitting there. And it's pretty hard for you to attack "the man" when you are the man.

BRANCACCIO: Connerly doesn't plan on voting for Obama. But he has been watching America's acceptance of him with keen interest as he works to rid of this country affirmative action policies. Those are programs set up to counter-act a history of discrimination by targeting women and minorities for opportunities in this country. They allow race or gender to be considered as factors when deciding, for instance, who gets accepted into high quality public schools or who gets a slice of billions of dollars in government contracts.

Amid the excitement among his supporters over Obama's historic nomination Thursday night... some worry Americans may be lulled into thinking that we have overcome this country's struggle with race. Kimberle Crenshaw is a professor of law at both Columbia University and UCLA.

BRANCACCIO: So here we are possibly two months away from a black man becoming president of the United States. Do you see that what some people regard as the dawn of the post-racial America?

CRENSHAW: The very fact that you have to ask that question tells us it's not post-racial. On one hand, it will be a milestone. I think people will be celebrating it. On the other hand, the very fact that we are debating whether race is over just because someone who happens to be the President is black tells us that race is not over.

BRANCACCIO: Crenshaw was in Denver this week to do some networking at this Women's Equality—tea party. The consensus among the people we talked to here is that race and gender still matter.

waters: I think that we have a long way to go in making sure that there is equality, and we have to continue to educate and let people know what it's all about.

BRANCACCIO: Even in 2008, going into 2009, where the Democratic Party lifted up two extraordinary leaders, and African American man and a woman, Hillary Clinton. More votes for those two than ever for a woman or for a black man. Still a need in that context for—

WATERS: Still a need, of course, we're making progress. No doubt—to have had a primary election in the Democratic Party where there was a woman—and an African American man is progress. But, that—but that does not mean that the job has been done.

BRANCACCIO: For Ward Connerly, however, affirmative action's job has been done for a good while. For the past fifteen years, he has established himself as one of the most prominent voices in this cause.

connerly: For black people and our reliance on affirmative action, the time indeed has come to let go.

BRANCACCIO: As a member of the governing board of the University of California system, Connerly successfully fought to remove race as a factor in deciding who gets into the university's many campuses. In 1996, protesters rocked the Berkeley campus over a ballot initiative called proposition 209 - a campaign Connerly led and won. When voters passed prop 209, the California state government banned any race or gender considerations in its hiring, contracting or educational policies.

You see a lot of this in terms of preferential treatment that you think is wrong. But it does assume that white guys still have no real social advantages.

CONNERLY: I think that in some quarters, many parts of the country, a white male is really disadvantaged. Because we have developed this notion of women and minorities being so disadvantaged and we have to help them, that we have, in many cases, twisted the thing so that it's no longer a case of equal opportunity. It's a case of putting a fist on the scale.

BRANCACCIO: Connerly has struck a chord with some white Americans who feel that the game has been rigged against them. This November, Ben Truitt will be voting in favor of the proposal to ban affirmative action in Colorado.

TRUITT: There's a lot of people in this country that have grown up and have been at a disadvantage. And it's not due—to color.

BRANCACCIO: Truitt grew up in a blue-collar family near Denver, he says just because he's a white guy doesn't mean that life has been a cakewalk.

TRUITT: My family didn't have the money to pay for me to go to college, and I—I paid all my expenses through loan programs and—and working part-time jobs. So having scholarships would have been a big help to me, getting through college.

BRANCACCIO: He says he worked hard and earned good grades in high school. But when he looked for scholarships, he realized he wasn't eligible to apply for many of them.

TRUITT: I remember an instance with one of my classmates, who was—a Hispanic woman, and she—was able to get a full ride scholarship, when I went to college, and I didn't get any scholarships.

BRANCACCIO: But the battle is over more than just differing views of fairness and equality... it is about money. A lot of money. State governments hand out contracts worth billions of dollars every year for public works projects like roads and buses. To meet federal guidelines, states often give incentives to businesses to work with women and minority owned firms, and there are training programs targeted toward them. Those firms often report that they can't get in the door otherwise.

That doesn't seem fair to many white contractors, including Ben Truitt. He's seen his business shrink with the housing bust. When he looks to do business with the state, he feels shut out.

TRUITT: The contracting is done on the basis of your ethnicity and—and gender and national origin. And that's what I don't think is fair.

BRANCACCIO: If the affirmative action ban passes this November, Ben feels he's got a better shot at making his business work. But for a picture of what would change in Colorado, check out California...where what are described as race and gender-neutral state government policies have been in place for over ten years now.

Since Proposition 209, there has been about a fifty percent drop in the percentage of black and Hispanic students at UCLA's medical and law schools. And the undergraduate program has also seen a big decline.

I was looking at UCLA's, that the number of—of African American students enrolled is like two percent now. It's like 1973's levels. You can't be proud of that, but it's the results of your actions.

CONNERLY: Don't blame me. It's not—it's not my actions. It's the performance of the kids who are applying. Nobody's trying to keep out black kids at UCLA. They have as—as much opportunity as anybody else. Why are they not being admitted? Because they're not as competitive. That is the reality. Just because you don't do good lay ups doesn't mean that the referee is trying to keep you from playing basketball.

BRANCACCIO: But Kimberle Crenshaw argues that it is not about kids who can't compete... it is the admissions process that's flawed... because schools are not allowed to consider how the student's race may have affected their life experience.

crenshaw: You have an incredibly talented pool of African-American and Latinos who are stuck in sometimes failing school systems. They don't offer advanced placement course. They don't have the highest rankings. Affirmative action says we should remove the effects of those obstacles. We should acknowledge the fact that the African-American, Latino, who's coming to UCLA with a 4.0 is as qualified, if not more, than the young suburban kid who's coming in, who had more opportunities and more options.

BRANCACCIO: And this isn't just about students. Women and minority business owners as well have been hit hard by Proposition 209. This study reports they've seen a more than fifty percent loss in total awards from the California state Transportation Department. Crenshaw worries what has happened in California will spread to the rest of the country.

CRENSHAW: The point is that eventually the entire country will be chilled. They don't have to win every state for other states to say, "Well, look what happened in California. Let's not even have this controversy here. Let's give up on these programs." We've gotta fight against these initiatives because they do far more than anyone would guess.

BRANCACCIO: And some voters are outraged by how the initiatives have been presented. The campaigns have been dogged by allegations of fraud and deception.

FRIE: I'm a mother, a grandmother, a former teacher. I don't like lying.

BRANCACCIO: Candace Frie is a retired teacher in Arvada, Colorado. A few months ago she signed the petition in support of this initiative.

FRIE: Well, I went to the grocery store where I usually shop and was approached by a young, African-American man who asked me if I wanted to sign a petition to end discrimination in Colorado. I asked to read it, and I did and I didn't see anything that sent up red flags.

BRANCACCIO: The Colorado Civil Rights Initiative - as the effort is called - reads like this: "the state shall not discriminate" against anybody, no matter what "race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin" it looked harmless enough to Candace Frie.

A couple of weeks later, Frie received an email warning her not to sign the thing. She was upset that she already had—as had some of her like-minded friends.

FRIE: I don't mind voting on an issue, whether I agree with it or not. What I mind is having fraudulent methods used to get that issue on the ballot. In a democracy, you present your issue. If you believe in it, that's fine, no matter what side it's on. But, then the people vote on it. You don't lie to get it there in the first place. That's not okay.

BRANCACCIO: The language of those initiatives are really very interesting. They seem to draw on the language of the civil rights struggle.

CONNERLY: Yeah. And—and for a reason. Civil Rights belong to everybody. They just don't belong to black people. There's nothing in the Civil Rights Act of '64 that says this is exclusive for black people.

And so—and those who say that we've misappropriated the term Civil Rights Act, and that we're somehow misappropriating that movement, they've got it wrong. The whole purpose of our effort is to say that civil rights belong to everybody.

BRANCACCIO: Why not be just more direct on those things? Say, "We want to get rid of affirmative action." Or, "We think that race preferences are bad. Sign this petition."

CONNERLY: What's affirmative action? Do we want to get rid of socio-economic affirmative action? I don't. The courts have said—and here in California, that affirmative action is an amorphous term. So, let's say that we said, "We want to get rid of affirmative action." What does that mean?

BRANCACCIO: What we found though is that some people are stepping forward, people we've talked to. They say that they feel they were misled by the phrasing, when they were offered the petition, a petition in some cases they signed...

CONNERLY: All I know is that the language is 37 words, simple and direct. And when you sign the petition, implicit in your signature is that you had the good sense to read what you were signing.

BRANCACCIO: Connerly's made a big push to gather enough signatures to get his initiatives on the ballots in five states this year. He fell short of his goal. But the battle remains fierce in Nebraska, Arizona and Colorado. Citizens groups are going to court to try to strike this initiative off the ballot this November.

The stakes are high. Consider these students... they're starting their freshmen year at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

They are part of the school's multicultural engineering program. They have spent the summer pouring over calculus and chemistry textbooks, among other light beach reading, and designed these prosthetic hands they're showing off here.

Brionna Jaurez Lopez graduated near the top of her high school class, but she says she still appreciated the extra academic preparation.

LOPEZ: It was hard. It was a hard five weeks. I lost my summer. But, you know, overall it was good. And I think the reason it was so good is that it was so intense. So when I come in the fall I will know what I'm prepa—I need—what I need to prepare for in terms of studying habits, meeting new people, networking, talking to professors.

BRANCACCIO: These are America's future scientists and engineers. Yet, they face big obstacles - the kind that often hit black and Hispanic communities the hardest.

Hope Willett went to a school that graduated less than half of its senior class. She hopes to be the first in her family to get a college degree.

WILLETT: I don't even have family that's gone to college. And so I'm kind of the first generation of my family that's actually looking towards getting a degree, period.

BRANCACCIO: This program is designed to increase the chances that a student like Mexican American Hope Willett stays, and does well, in college. Kimberle Crenshaw argues that even programs like this one are in jeopardy if voters decide to eliminate affirmative action.

CRENSHAW: This is not just about affirmative action in each of these states. It is the basis for a huge assault on a whole range of policies and practices at the local level, at the state level that are designed to provide opportunity from outreach programs to mentoring. People will be stunned when they see how far some of these advocates are going to take this initiative.

BRANCACCIO: The initiative could also have an effect on Brionna, who aims to become a computer science engineer. As a Mexican American and a woman- she knows that she will be blazing new trails. Women make up just eleven percent of the entire engineering work force. Hispanics only six percent.

LOPEZ: I talk to the people in the field, women in the field because there's not a lot of women in computer science. So I do know it's, you know, challenging in that aspect. But I talked to so many people, I know the track I need to stay on and what I need to do in order to become a successful computer science engineer.

BRANCACCIO: If the Colorado initiative passes, many types of scholarship money for women and minorities could disappear. And this university would not be allowed to consider race or gender at all in hiring or admissions.

Despite these concerns, the organizers of these initiatives claim to have strong popular-and local—support but if you look more closely—the money trail for these initiatives does not stop in Nebraska or Colorado... it leads to California.

BRANCACCIO: Do you worry about imposing your will on the good people of these states, where you're pushing these initiatives? I mean, these are not exactly grassroots movements by the good people of Colorado or Arizona.

CONNERLY: I would not be so presumptuous as to think that I can impose my will on millions of people. All I can do is to say that as a fellow American this is what I believe is the right way for our country to go. I don't have a vote in Arizona or Colorado or Nebraska. As one citizen I am proffering my view of what I think is in the best interest of our country.

BRANCACCIO: Well, your view and your money. We were looking through the Colorado Secretary of State's figures, and it turns out that in Colorado, 98 percent of the money for the initiative is from out of state and most of that is from your organization.

CONNERLY: Well, our organization has developed the ability to bring in a cadre of people from around the country, who share our views and who are supporting it.

BRANCACCIO: And who are the people who share his views? Ward Connerly may be the public face of the movement, but follow the money and you'll find a network of staunch conservatives who have financed the agenda.

Another key ally in Connerly's campaigns to end affirmative action has been the construction and building industry. It backed proposition 209 in California and similar efforts elsewhere .

CRENSHAW: This is not a civil rights campaign. This is not a moral campaign. This is, in fact, an industry-based advocacy group that is headed by one of their lobbyists who is Ward Connerly.

BRANCACCIO: Connerly strongly denies he's doing the bidding of the industry. He says his private consulting firm, Connerly and Associates, may have contractors as clients, but it has never lobbied for them.

How do you answer people who say that you have a big profit motive in trying to rid the country of affirmative action? That you represent big contracting firms that may be white-owned that stand to profit from your efforts? And you've made a lot of money doing that?

CONNERLY: It's just not true. My firm is a—an association management firm. We have never represented "big contractors" that bid on public works contracts. We never have. It just isn't true. Our contractors and the job that we do is manage the assets, primarily of roofing contractors who are small guys who operate largely out of their pickup trucks, some of them have large businesses, but they don't bid on large public works contracts.

BRANCACCIO: But a check of California state records found that his company was registered as a lobbying firm from 1995-2006. Plus, he is currently listed as the executive director of a lobbying group called the Roofing Contractors Association of California. Our investigation also located bidding records showing how members of the contractors association competed for and won big government contracts...like maintaining the roofs of city buildings in San Francisco. That was a 4.5 million dollar contract.

So where do the candidates stand on these initiatives? A few weeks ago, Connerly got the nod from one of them: Republican Senator John McCain. When affirmative action came up in McCain's home state of Arizona ten years ago, McCain opposed it, calling it "divisive". He has since reversed course:

NEWS CLIP—GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Opponents of affirmative action have put forward a ballot initiative that would remove state affirmative action. Do you support it?

MCCAIN: Yes, I do. I do not believe in quotas... I have not seen the details of some of these proposals. But I've always opposed quotas.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But the one in Arizona, you support?

MCCAIN: I support it, yes.

BRANCACCIO: If senator McCain had seen the details of the proposal he's supporting, he'd see that quotas are not on the ballot because they've been largely outlawed since 1978. The Democratic presidential candidate, on the other hand, opposes Connerly's initiatives. Barack Obama says affirmative action is quote "absolutely necessary", but he has also said its purpose is limited.

OBAMA: Frankly, if you've got 50 percent of African American or Latino kids dropping out of high school, it doesn't really matter what you do in terms of affirmative action, those kids are not getting into college.

BRANCACCIO: There is one point where Ward Connerly and Barack Obama have some common ground: the need to move to a kind of affirmative action that considers economic need. But if Senator Obama's emphasis on universal approaches was bothering anyone, we didn't detect it at this convention party hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus.

Senator Obama wants to lift up all people. He accepts affirmative action, but he says more work is necessary to lift people, regardless of their color, out of poverty and to end discrimination against all people. Is that the way to go forward?

BROWN: That is the agenda that he should follow. He wishes to be the president of the United States, not the president of black America. And he should follow the agenda of addressing the issue of poverty and deprivation for everybody. But the main beneficiaries of it will be people of color. And one of the tools to achieve it will be affirmative action. And it will be supported by Barack Obama.

BRANCACCIO: And over on the Denver convention floor- we met up with a senior advisor to Barack Obama, Charles Ogletree. The bottom line, he says, is that Barack Obama alone can't bring us racial equality... that's a responsibility we all share.

President Carter said that if Barack Obama is elected, quote, "Then, I think, this will be the transforming race for the end of racism and prejudice and hatred between races in this country."

OGLETREE: I think it's pretty breathtaking. And it's hard to imagine—and it's unfair to put the burden on Barack Obama. If he's elected, he's gonna solve a lot of problems. But to say it's gonna be an end to race discrimination and prejudice is just unimaginable. We can't do that overnight, we can't do it in a generation.

BRANCACCIO: The debate continues online, where two experts go head to head in our interactive interview. See their arguments and share your own. It's all on our website.

On the next edition of NOW, we're switching parties. Join us for another of our Adventures in Democracy as the Republicans gather in Minneapolis.

And that's it for NOW. From Denver, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.