Most Americans passively accept the policy known as “affirmative action” — i.e., state-sponsored discrimination against their fellow citizens — but this could never be said of Ward Connerly. Mr. Connerly, the founder and president of the American Civil Rights Institute, has led the public fight against race-based hiring and promotional practices for over fifteen years. Previously, he served a twelve-year term as a member of the University of California Board of Regents. His tenure coincided with the board voting in 1995 to terminate racial preferences in regards to student admissions. His victories are numerous but none more significant than the 1996 passage of Proposition 209 in California. The release of his latest book, Lessons from My Uncle James: Beyond Skin Color to the Content of Our Character, is what occasioned this interview. He is also the author of Creating Equal: My Fight Against Race Preferences.
BC: Congratulations, sir, on your latest book, Lessons from My Uncle James: Beyond Skin Color to the Content of Our Character. It reminded me very much of Clarence Thomas’ My Grandfather’s Son, which you reference in your narrative. Your uncle, James Louis, was very similar to the daunting figure that still looms over Justice Thomas. Do you think that such men are extinct today?
Ward Connerly: I believe they are not extinct, but they are clearly endangered, primarily because we place so little value on being what Uncle James regarded as a “mane.” Over the years, our society has essentially neutered manhood to the point that men like James Louis are made to appear to be creatures of the past. Modern-day men are expected to express their “feelings,” be politically correct in what they say, and not give deference to women in such matters as opening doors for them. All of these attributes have served the purpose of reducing the stature of bigger-than-life men and diminishing their influence in their own families.
BC: James Louis was not related to you by blood. What inspired him to make the sacrifices that he did?
Ward Connerly: Uncle James always said, “Your word is your bond.” When Uncle James told my mother that he would take care of me in the event of her death, his commitment became an unalienable obligation, simply because he had given his word. Moreover, James Louis seemed to thrive on being responsible. Accepting personal responsibility to feed, clothe, and house your family and take care of your dogs went to the core of who he was and of being a “mane.”
BC: James would be excoriated on Oprah and The View over his stoicism in regards to emotion. He didn’t go around telling everyone he loved them. Indeed, he said, “I’m here with you, ain’t I?” to such questions, but was his love more legitimate due to its being tangible and not solely rooted in speech?
Ward Connerly: I believe it was. In his view, if you didn’t show your love by your deeds, then there was reason to doubt it. In a sense, I believe he thought that words seemed to discount the value of his love. In short, he would have said, “Bert [his wife], if I have to tell you that I love you, I must not be carrying out my responsibilities as a ‘mane.'”
BC: Uncle James called common sense “mother wit.” He had it in abundance. Do you think that the reason so many politicians and journalists are devoid of it has to do with its being so “common”? In other words, is it the exact opposite of Occam’s razor, whereby they reject common sense because it is not something you need an advanced degree to express?
Ward Connerly: Well said! Politicians, journalists, academicians — the elites, if you will — devalue basic instincts, self-evident truths, and the traits that are common to us as human beings. They seem to believe that all life can be defined and measured by our analytical powers instead of common sense. Even animals have their own “systems” of behavior and are governed by those inherent systems. Uncle James believed that human beings do as well and that they should rely on them. To him, “too much learning” often got in the way of “mother wit.”
BC: I’ve of two minds regarding James’ opinion that you should sweat the small stuff. Has it been your experience that when you take care of the little things “the big stuff” falls into place?
Ward Connerly: I am and have always been equally conflicted by his view about this. On the one hand, staying focused on “the big picture” has served me well in virtually every campaign in which I have been engaged. There is enormous danger in losing one’s sense of purpose when one gets “bogged down in details.” On the other hand, if you don’t pay attention to details, the overall objective can be undermined because something important “slips through the cracks.” Loaded in my response is a bunch of cliches that underscore how much many of us are torn by this issue. I have come to believe that it is not an either-or circumstance but a balance of the two.
BC: In my adult life I have met no one who agrees with James’ notion that if you’re “not working all-out when you were on the clock [it’s] tantamount to theft.” Was it the sixties and the automatic questioning of authority that dispelled this work ethic from our lives? Is it possible to re-instill such values in children today?
Ward Connerly: Then you haven’t met me yet, because I am in full agreement with Uncle James about this.
For decades, there has been a steady erosion of America’s work ethic and in the concept of giving an honest day’s work for your pay. This erosion cannot be viewed in isolation. For example, it was unthinkable back in the sixties for someone to unabashedly stand on a street corner with a cardboard sign that reads, “Will work for food.” We were too proud to beg. With that relaxation came a sense of entitlement. In short, “if I am broke, you have a duty to help me out” seems to be the thinking that has evolved.
With James Louis, this notion was part of his total outlook. Values like “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you,” don’t take anything that doesn’t belong to you, give an honest day’s work for a day’s pay — all of these values formed Uncle James. Therefore, his work ethic did not stand in isolation; it was part of his overall value system. For him, work was an enjoyment and he was grateful to the company that gave him a job. Therefore, he owed it to the company, as a matter of honor, to give it full measure of what he promised when he accepted the job.
BC: As I read Lessons from My Uncle James, I was reminded of a quote from William F. Buckley — “I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University” — because James Louis was a man with little education, but one who seemed to know more about life than most of the folks in Congress. What would America have looked like had he ever been president?
Ward Connerly: Wow! What a great question!
First, the political bullsh*t factor would be greatly reduced, because Uncle James would tell the American people exactly what he thought. No spin! No punches pulled! In response to the current economy, he would say: “Get off your butts and stop whining. Find a job, any job, to support your families. Don’t expect the taxpayers to take care of you. Stop buying things when you don’t have the money.”
America would be a nation in which the government would not distinguish one citizen from another based on skin color or race or ethnic background. Everyone would have equal rights and equal responsibilities. America would have no tolerance for illegal entry into our country, but once you became a citizen you would be treated like everyone else.
A James Louis administration would respect and honor the Second Amendment, because a “mane” needs to be able to hunt and provide for his family. Taxes would be low and government would be small, because President Louis wouldn’t believe in taking money from private citizens except for the most essential of functions. Families would be stronger, because James Louis would place responsibility that is currently assumed by the government into the hands of families.
President Louis would make certain that the government would get out of the way of private businesses and citizens trying to earn a living. America would have a very high level of consciousness about the importance of freedom. James Louis would awaken and remind Americans of why their country is a great nation. America would be confident in its values, in its people, and in its way of life. To the rest of the world, he would say, “Don’t mess with us,” and he would mean it.
Americans would have more fun and laugh more, sometimes at but more often with President Louis. He would not take himself too seriously. America would operate at a slower pace than it does now. Many would be critical of that, but James Louis would say, “What’s your hurry? Enjoy life!” President Louis would encourage us to go to church more often.
I think America with James Louis as president would look like America with Ronald Reagan as president, only more conservative.
BC: I’ve always wondered about the left’s counterattacks against the Civil Rights Initiative. The logic behind its wording is irrefutable and non-offensive: “The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or contracting.” Do they ever attack the idea behind the proposal or simply stick to ad hominem assaults against its proponents?
Ward Connerly: Frequently, the very idea of a “colorblind” government is the source of the attack. Opponents argue that such an idea is naive and unattainable; therefore, it should not be pursued. In addition, many of the opponents of these initiatives argue that because America has been “racist” and “sexist” in its past, the country has an obligation to “level the playing field” for women and minorities, and the policy implicit in the language of our Civil Rights Initiative prevents the pursuit of that objective. More often than not, however, the opponents of these initiatives realize the irrefutability of the language and resort to ad hominem attacks as a way of discrediting the messenger since they are incapable of discrediting the message.
BC: It strikes me as very sad that in America today blacks are only allowed to have one political viewpoint. If one doesn’t back the Democratic Party then you’re illegitimate — or a term far worse. Do you think Barack Obama’s winning 95 percent of the black vote was a step backwards for the nation in terms of identity politics?
Ward Connerly: I detest identity politics, because it divides Americans into arbitrary groups and it sometimes results in mediocrity. Yet, we must ask how most Italians would have voted for Rudy Guiliani had he been on the ballot or how Mormons would have voted had Mitt Romney been one of the two major candidates. How would those respective groups have voted in the aggregate? It is undeniably true that racial, religious, and gender considerations are significant to many as they weigh how to vote.
It is equally true that the more a group of people perceive themselves to be oppressed, the greater likelihood there is that such a group will embrace racial or religious solidarity when it comes to casting their vote for “one of their own.” Thus, I am somewhat hopeful that in the fullness of time black people will be less likely to vote as blindly as they did this past November. If that does not happen, then the 2008 presidential election may be characterized at some future point as a gigantic step backward in terms of identity politics.
BC: So far, Obama has marched lockstep with leftists in regards to statism and radical feminism. Is there any chance, in your mind, that he might take a more neutral stand on affirmative action in the future?
Ward Connerly: Some believe that President Obama, based on his comments in an interview with George Stephanopoulos last year, will move toward socioeconomic affirmative action instead of race-based affirmative action. Although I would applaud such a move, I am highly skeptical of that happening. “Affirmative action,” as a system of preferences designed to benefit women and “minorities,” is supported by the two most prominent pillars of the “progressive” cartel — women and “minorities.” Such programs are a political article of faith with black people. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that President Obama would muster the courage to alter his stance on affirmative action. The most that he might do is supplement class with race, gender, and ethnic background, not supplant those factors.
BC: Thank you for your time, Mr. Connerly.