U.S. opponents of preferences based on race and gender are lobbying five more states to forbid the practice 16 months after Michigan voters said no to affirmative action in the public arena.
Foes of affirmative action, which is meant to address current and historical inequities, delivered 128,744 signatures to Colorado authorities earlier this month. Similar organizations in Arizona, Missouri, Oklahoma and Nebraska are circulating petitions as civil rights groups and educators are mobilizing to defeat the measures.
At the forefront of the movement is Ward Connerly, America's most prominent opponent of affirmative action, who said he has raised about 1.5 million U.S. dollars for the campaigns. He sees the November ballot initiatives as the next step in his drive to end preferences in public education, hiring and contracting.
"Without any doubt, we have to understand that race preferences are on the way out," said Connerly, who heads to Missouri next week to deliver speeches on behalf of that state's constitutional amendment, now tangled in a court battle over the ballot measure's wording.
In the states where Connerly's self-described "civil rights initiative" appears on the ballot, voters are likely to see it alongside the name of the first black or female major-party presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) Connerly contends that the success of Obama and Clinton shows that preferences are no longer necessary "to compensate for, quote, institutional racism and institutional sexism."
Connerly, a prosperous and conservative black Republican, said he contributed 500 dollars to Obama's campaign to honor him "for trying to take race out of the body politic." Obama opposes Connerly's approach to affirmative action and lent his voice to a 2006 radio ad opposing the Connerly-sponsored Proposition 2 in Michigan. (The Obama campaign would not comment on whether it is keeping the money.)
Obama is not alone. Opponents of Connerly's effort are using legal challenges and grass-roots organizing techniques to keep the measures off the ballot, or to defeat them.
"As we feared, Connerly's attack on equal opportunity in Michigan has metastasized," said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. "We know that most Americans support equal opportunity. They know that diversity is good for business, good for the classroom and ultimately good for the country."
Henderson dismissed Connerly's reference to Obama as a willingness to "seize on any factoid to justify his assault on equal opportunity" and added: "I am not surprised he would lift up the performance of Barack to say that race no longer matters in American life. That's a gross overstatement of the lives of most Americans."