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Color war!



Issues of affirmative action and racial integration are again in the public eye. The recent Supreme Court decision in Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education and also a Seattle case are lauded as progress toward a race-neutral society and decried as overturning Brown v. the Board of Education. Closer to home, in Oklahoma, expect the rhetoric to get turned up as the "color wars" come to a ballot box near you.


The debate over the role of race in public policy in the United States is not finished. In Oklahoma, effort is under way to place an initiative on the ballot in November 2008 as part of a "Super Tuesday for Equal Rights." The initiative is part of a national effort by Ward Connerly and Jennifer Grantz, who led the Proposition 209 effort in California in 1996, and follows two previous, successful initiatives to end affirmative action in Washington (1998) and Michigan (2006). Both passed with 58 percent of the vote.


Oklahoma is one of at least four states to be part of a concerted effort to place ending affirmative action on the ballot. The others are Arizona, Colorado and Missouri. All of these states have growing Hispanic populations. All are states where Democrats recently have enjoyed success in state politics. And, all are states where demographics indicate a high probability of success for an initiative like Proposition 209.


There are several dimensions to this issue that require consideration in Oklahoma. The history of segregation in the state is benign subsequent to 1954 and when compared to the Deep South. Oklahoma did not resist integration with the vigor of Mississippi. But, a legacy of segregated schools and sundown laws is hard to set aside, even as recent and historic local events illuminate racial and cultural differences.


An affirmative action ban initiative in Oklahoma will be controversial, and also successful. Ideological and ethnic demographics dictate success. In Michigan in 2006, roughly 80 percent of residents were white; white men favored the initiative 70-30, white women 59-41. Black voters opposed the initiative 86-14, but 30 percent of nonwhite men voted for the initiative. Conservatives, who are a third of the Michigan electorate, voted 76-24 for the initiative, and moderates (almost half of the electorate) voted "aye" 53-47.


Back here in the SoonerState, white voters make up nearly 90 percent of the Oklahoma electorate. Half of Oklahomans identify as conservative. Another third call themselves moderates. The table is set for electoral success for this initiative, even in the face of intensive effort to stop the initiative.


The head of this movement is a frustrating enigma for those who seek to frame society through archetypes. As a University of California regent, Connerly spearheaded efforts to support Proposition 209. He's a black man, and with Justice Clarence Thomas and J.C. Watts often is placed at the head of the liberal's list of black men who are "not black" due to their political views. He represents a minority perspective in the African-American community, and, ironically, a perspective that must exist and grow to declare success of programs such as affirmative action.


Programs such as affirmative action and certain provisions of The Voting Rights Act were designed to correct historic wrongs. Simply eliminating legal structures that prevented access to the ballot, education and the economy is insufficient to correct historic use of the law to impose inferior status. However, emergency provisions are meant to expire as gross differences that arose from segregation disappear. The challenge for making such policy decisions is deciding when the emergency has passed. The Supreme Court has sent its signal that there are modern limits to racial activism in public policy. Now the electorate will take its turn.


Gaddie is a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma and a partner in, a public opinion research firm in Oklahoma City.

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