Aug. 7, 2003
The old Democratic bull, a formidable figure in his state's white power establishment, lashed out at the black civil rights leader and his crusade to ensure equal treatment under the law for people of every race and ethnicity.
"Go home and stay there," the white politician snarled in a letter written on official government stationery. "We have no need for itinerant publicity seekers, non-resident troublemakers or self-aggrandizing out-of-state agitators. You have created enough mischief in your own state to last a lifetime. . . . Go home and stay there, you're not welcome here."
To read the letter George Wallace sent to Martin Luther King Jr. at the start of the 1963 Birmingham sit-ins is to be reminded once again of the tremendous distance Americans have come in little more than a generation. Who today can imagine any elected official -- never mind a Democrat -- dismissing a civil rights campaigner with such contempt? Or having the gall to claim that racial injustice is a matter of local concern only, nothing for "out-of-state agitators" to involve themselves in? A white politician who wrote so abusive a letter today would find himself lambasted from coast to coast and his career branded with a scarlet `R.'
Or would he?
For in truth, the letter quoted above was not written 40 years ago by George Wallace. It was written four weeks ago by Representative John Dingell of Michigan, one of the most powerful Democrats on Capitol Hill. The target of his vituperation: Ward Connerly, the Sacramento businessman and University of California regent who emerged in the 1990s as the foremost champion of the idea that the law should judge Americans by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
Connerly was the moving force behind Proposition 209, the 1996 California ballot initiative that outlawed race and gender preferences in public education, public employment, and public contracting. Two years later, he helped lead the successful campaign for I-200, a Proposition 209 clone that ended preferences in Washington state. Connerly believes, as civil rights heroes from John Marshall Harlan to A. Philip Randolph to Thurgood Marshall believed, that when it comes to matters of law and government, Americans should be treated as individuals, not as members of racial or ethnic groups.
In the 1940s and '50s and '60s, those who fought for colorblindness were opposed, sometimes violently, by bigots and right-wing segregationists. By contrast, those who take up the fight today find themselves attacked from the left, by liberal Democrats and self-described progressives.
Dingell's boorishness is nothing new for Connerly. For his tireless efforts to get government out of the race racket, he has been likened over the years to a Klansman and an ethnic cleanser, denounced as a "traitor" and an "Uncle Tom," and heard his ideas compared to everything from "evil bacteria" to "Mein Kampf." Next to that kind of hate speech, Dingell's epithets seem almost genteel.
What prompted Dingell's attack -- which the media, by the way, almost totally ignored -- was Connerly's announcement in Ann Arbor on July 8 that he would launch a ballot drive to end public-sector race preferences in the state of Michigan. Like Proposition 209 and I-200, Connerly's Michigan initiative would end the condescending double standard of affirmative action -- including at the University of Michigan Law School, whose race-based admission system was recently upheld by the Supreme Court.
The measure was promptly denounced by a broad swath of the Michigan elite -- including the heads of both political parties. The state's Democratic Party chairman vowed "to make sure it goes down in flames." The GOP pronounced it "divisive." But if Michigan voters are like most Americans, they believe what Connerly believes: that government should not be in the business of picking winners and losers on the basis of skin color.
Meanwhile, Connerly is spearheading another California ballot question. Proposition 54, the Racial Privacy Initiative, will be on the same Oct. 7 ballot as the proposed recall of Governor Gray Davis. It would prohibit state and local government agencies (with certain broad exemptions) from collecting racial or ethnic data on its residents.
If Prop. 54 passes, California and its official institutions would have no more authority to ask a citizen her race than they do to ask her religion or sexual orientation. No longer would Californians be forced to check those odious little boxes and sort themselves into rigid racial and ethnic categories. In the nation's most racially and ethnically diverse state, official racial classifications and stereotypes would at last become a thing of the past.
Needless to say, the malignant race industry that battens off the tensions it does so much to inflame is horrified by Proposition 54 and will stop at nothing to kill it. We will doubtless hear a lot more about Connerly and his ballot measure in the next eight weeks, and much of it will be hostile. But while reactionaries like Dingell fight to keep us herded in our racial pens, Connerly is focused on the future -- a future in which race will matter less than ever, and in which Americans move ever closer to becoming what they were always meant to be: one nation, indivisible.