Anti-Affirmative Action Crusaders Commit Voter Fraud
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Ruthie Stevenson was on her way to the post office in Mt. Clemens, Mich., when she was asked to sign a petition to "make civil rights fairer for everybody." The circulator named the president of the local NAACP as a supporter. This would have been surprising, since the petition -- known euphemistically as the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative -- sought to amend the Michigan constitution to eliminate all affirmative-action programs in the state. Moreover, Stevenson knew firsthand that fraud was afoot: She was the president of the local NAACP, and had certainly never lent her support.
Unfortunately, Stevenson was far from the only Michigan voter to have encountered trickery and deception in Ward Connerly's campaign to eliminate affirmative action. Hundreds of Michigan citizens, disproportionately African-American, testified before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission and later in federal district court that Connerly's canvassers lied or otherwise misled them to secure their signatures.
The federal district court judge denounced what it called voter fraud, but ruled that the effort deceived blacks and whites equally, and thus did not violate the Voting Rights Act. The court noted, however, "If the proposal eventually passes, it will be stained by well-documented acts of fraud and deception that the defendants, as a matter of fact, have not credibly denied."
The proposal did pass, in November of 2006, Michigan thus becoming the third state to ratify such an initiative, with all three protracted and divisive campaigns fronted by Connerly. Yet the stain predicted by the court is barely visible to those who haven't witnessed the seamy underbelly of his supposedly highbrow efforts.
The most audacious dimension of Connerly's masquerade, which he now hopes to replicate in five other states in November, is his use of the language of civil rights as the Trojan horse to roll his reactionary agenda into the center of American politics. By selectively sampling from its martyr, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Connerly has appropriated the terminology, symbolism and moral authority of the Civil Rights movement to undo some of its most important victories. The millions of U.S. citizens who are primed to affirm any proposal framed as advancing civil rights are precisely those most at risk of being tricked into voting against their own interests. Women and black people were denied the vote in the past; today, they are deceived out of their votes.
Connerly's Civil Rights Initiative (CRI) campaigns use purposefully deceptive language to confuse some voters into repudiating policies they might otherwise support. Virtually all his campaigns purport to ban "discrimination or preference" on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity and national origin. Even those who read the language of his initiatives with caution will not necessarily recognize a ban on discrimination or preference as a vote to end affirmative action.
For many voters, "preference" does not equate with affirmative action. Instead, it captures the bevy of rewards afforded to those who have been historically advantaged in American society through nepotism, old-boy networks and discriminatory enclaves. These and other exclusionary practices function as built-in preferences that funnel a disproportionate share of resources and opportunities to whites and to men.
Voters who understand that dynamic may thus interpret preference as a way of describing discrimination -- and thus a vote for a CRI is a vote against entrenched and systemic exclusion. The obvious solution is for voters to be presented with clear language indicating that the real purpose of the initiatives is to eliminate affirmative-action programs for women and people of color.
But Connerly has repeatedly rejected this simple solution. Despite his claims that the majority of Americans stand with him in opposing affirmative action, he has refused to use plain language. And it's obvious why: As early as 1995, the distinguished pollster Louis Harris discovered that while Americans overwhelmingly oppose "racial preferences," a clear majority support "affirmative action." For some Americans, the word "preferences" triggers images of rigid quotas, reverse discrimination and unqualified minorities, while "affirmative action" has come to mean increasing opportunities for members of excluded or underrepresented groups. Harris thus concluded that how the question is worded on this issue is highly significant.
In fact, when the city of Houston changed the wording of a Connerly initiative in that city to pose a direct question to voters about whether affirmative-action policies should be banned, the initiative lost. But when elected officials and courts allowed him to use his deceptive language in California, Washington and Michigan, the initiatives passed.
It is helpful to recognize that the rallying cry of "special treatment" is not at all new: Virtually all efforts to integrate excluded groups into American institutions have been denounced in those terms. Similarly, efforts to integrate women into all-male institutions (such as private clubs) have been resisted as unnatural, unjustified and disruptive. But interestingly, as those male-dominated environments become suspect and eventually unacceptable, efforts to change the rules are no longer seen as special treatment but as perfectly reasonable policies to equalize opportunity.
The challenge for us in contemporary America is to capture this understanding across a range of modern institutions, where the presence of women and people of color remains a matter of controversy rather than a normal fact of life. If efforts to defend affirmative action are going to be successful, advocates are going to have to redirect the public's attention to the conditions of everyday life for women and minorities that are themselves unfair, and to which affirmative action is a modest but a very necessary solution.
For the full version of this article, see the Winter issue of Ms. magazine, now on newsstands or available as a membership benefit at www.msmagazine.com.
Kimberle Crenshaw is a professor of law at Columbia and UCLA Law School, and directs the African American Policy Forum ( www.aapf.org), which advances social justice through public education initiatives.