Local News

Connerly Speaks, Angry Students Protest

Posted December 3, 1997 12:00 a.m. EST

— The man who helped to dismantle affirmative action policies in the country's largest university system said today that racial preferences go against the ``self-evident'' truth outlined in the Declaration of Independence - that all men are created equal.

Ward Connerly told the conservative John Locke Foundation that Martin Luther King Jr. understood better than most what the Declaration of Independence meant and often quoted it in his speeches.

``He believed that the nation could, as he said so eloquently, someday live out the true meaning of its creed,'' he said.

In recent years, however, America lost track of King's vision, Connerly said.

``Instead, we began to pursue that notion that, as Cornel West at Harvard says, race matters, and that you have to use race to get beyond race.''

``The `race matters' philosophy is poisonous for all Americans, because once you start using it, you don't get beyond it,'' Connerly said. ``It becomes part of everything you do. And there is no institution in American society that practices it more than the academy. Race seeps out of every pore of our colleges and universities.''

Tuesday night, Connerly urged students at the nation's first public university to reject racial preferences.

``If we can't embrace the notion that all of us will have equal rights as citizens, if we can justify or rationalize separate standards for our students to be admitted into college on the basis of skin color, then there's no hope for this democracy,'' he said. ``It won't work. The system simply will not work.''

``Race has no place in American life or law,'' Connerly told students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, quoting the late President Kennedy. ``That was supposed to be our guiding light as a nation.''

Student Tasha Venters says Connerly delivers a frightening message.

Student John Dervin says others have taken up Connerly's rhetoric.

Connerly in 1995 led the University of California Board of Regents to abolish race as a factor in university admissions. He went on to spearhead California's Proposition 209, a successful ballot initiative that banned state and local governments from using race or gender preferences in public hiring, education and contracting.

About 250 students jammed the student union to protest the speech. The students, about half of them black and half white, chanted, ``No university without diversity,'' and pumped signs denouncing Connerly's message.

Connerly said his appearance at UNC pointed out how important it is to rid society of the divisiveness created by emphasizing race. After his speech, audience members formed two lines to ask questions. One line was formed by blacks invariably opposed to Connerly, and the other was formed by whites who supported him.

``What's happened to us to cause us to break off so radically on something that is supposed to be self-evident, something that is so fundamental to what this nation is supposed to be?'' he asked.

Americans must go back to their roots and embrace the country's fundamental beliefs as a people, then move on from there, Connerly said. Trying to make amends for past injustices, he added, is an exercise in futility.

``At some point, I believe we say, `We're going to wipe the slate clean,' and we're going to say that today is the first day of the rest of our lives.... I not going to hold anyone accountable for yesterday, last year, 300 years ago; I'm going to hold you accountable for today. Under our system, we don't blame the son for the sins of the father.''

Connerly's visit to North Carolina follows a decision by UNC President Molly Broad to call for a review of affirmative action policies on all 16 UNC campuses. Already, some scholarships for black students have been abolished, and some special programs have been integrated to comply with her directive that campuses get rid of policies that use race as the only factor in admissions, financial aid or scholarship decisions.

Broad said she wants to protect UNC's campuses from lawsuits - and from the drop in black student enrollment that would come with a measure like Proposition 209 - by making sure they are following the U.S. Supreme Court's 1978 ruling in University of California vs. Bakke. The decision allows race to be considered as one factor among many in university admissions.

The protestors at UNC Tuesday night made clear their unhappiness with Broad's review.

``Students are outraged to learn that some UNC system campuses have moved beyond the law and are working to eliminate race as a factor in admissions, recruitment and retention,'' said Ali Fischer, a protest leader. ``This is a huge blow to civil rights and higher education in North Carolina.''

Meanwhile, Tuesday, at a private reception for Connerly, Rep. Edwin Hardy, R-Beaufort, said he plans to refile his anti-affirmative action bill, ``The Civil Rights Restoration Act,'' during the 1999 legislative session.

The bill, modeled after Proposition 209, failed to pass the General Assembly this year.

``We've had affirmative action in North Carolina for 25 years, and it can stay in place one more year,'' Hardy said. ``But I don't think it should be in place much longer than that. I never believed in it in the first place, and its time has certainly passed.''

By RANDALL CHASE,Associated Press Writer Copyright ©1997 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or distributed.