Obama's Affirmative Action Test

The next test of Barack Obama's "postracial" persona may come from some unlikely places: Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma. That's where Ward Connerly, the country's most innovative and successful opponent of affirmative action over the past decade, is launching an effort to get an initiative on the ballots that would prohibit public institutions from considering race, sex or ethnicity in areas such as hiring and college admissions. Connerly's political savvy on matters of race is worth considering. Since cutting his teeth in 1996 as a key backer of the California ballot initiative known as Proposition 209--which amended the state Constitution to prohibit affirmative action in the public sphere--Connerly has steered successful ballot drives in Washington and Michigan to do the same.

His decision to target these five states in 2008 has less to do with their electoral impact than the fact they allow for ballot initiatives and that Connerly thinks he can win big in all of them. But given Obama's oft-declared intention to redraw the political map, it's hard to see how he can avoid the issue of affirmative action in some, if not all, of the states Connerly is targeting.

Mounting a ballot initiative in even one state, much less five, can be prohibitively expensive and logistically tough. Thousands of voter signatures have to be gathered in support and verified months ahead of time, all while building a war chest to pay for issue ads in the fall. But Connerly, who describes himself as one-quarter black, appears to have a wealthy donor base; his nonprofit American Civil Rights Institute has drawn big contributions from right-wing tycoons like Rupert Murdoch (two donations totaling $300,000 during one 2003 campaign) and Joseph Coors (a $250,000 loan for the same race). (Connerly is not required to disclose current donations. Those donor disclosures were compelled due to a California lawsuit over that particular campaign, though current contributions to his group are private by law.)

Obama has yet to take a definitive public stance on affirmative action in this campaign, but he did voice a radio ad in opposition to Connerly's successful 2006 campaign in Michigan. Darren Davis, a professor of political science at Notre Dame, calls the emerging Connerly question "one of the most profound" of Obama's campaign--especially in the wake of the controversy over his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. "Basically, on every racial issue Barack Obama is walking the tightrope," Davis says. "The more he supports traditional black issues like affirmative action, the more that will eat into his white base of support." Obama has been careful when broaching this issue; in a 2007 ABC News interview he suggested that the affirmative action of the future should consider economic status more than race.

If Connerly's successful in making this an issue for Obama, it wouldn't be the first time state ballot initiatives affected a presidential campaign. In a forthcoming study, political scientists Todd Donovan, Caroline Tolbert and Daniel A. Smith claim that in 2004, voters in the 13 states that offered anti-gay-marriage initiatives or referenda were more likely to consider that issue as being important in the presidential race, compared with voters in states with no such campaigns. Stephen Nicholson, author of "Voting the Agenda," says other research suggests that the initiatives' influence spilled over into the national electorate at large. "By putting an issue on the ballot, what you wind up doing is giving an institutional push to an issue that voters may not have deemed relevant," Nicholson says. "By qualifying an initiative on a ballot, or multiple ballots, you are putting it side by side with the candidates." This year, that is exactly what Connerly wants to do.

Some Democrats suspected the GOP of coordinating the gay-marriage initiatives as a way of rallying support and getting out the vote of the right. Connerly, however, appears to be a genuinely independent actor, if one with a wealthy donor base. Given his perfect record thus far in passing initiatives where they have qualified for the ballot, and his high-profile support from pillars of the right (including National Review president Thomas Rhodes), it's a good bet that Connerly will have the resources to mount serious campaigns this year in the states he's targeted.

Moreover, Connerly says the strength of Obama's candidacy only highlights why affirmative action is no longer relevant. "How can you have a self-identified black man running for the highest office for the land [while] defending preferences based on race?" Connerly asks. "It reinforces the logic of our initiatives."

Calling this kind of analysis "a very big leap of faith," Davis says Obama's individual rise tells us little about the value of affirmative action to average African-Americans--though he admits this is nevertheless the way in which many voters will evaluate the phenomenon of his viability. "This is the exact type of information that voters use to confirm what they already believe about race," he says. What's more, Davis claims, Obama's campaign tactics have, in an ironic twist, invited Connerly's challenge. "Obama himself has not attributed his success to any of the structural success [on race] in American society," Davis says. "The Obama campaign exudes this individualism and this perseverance that people who are against affirmative action have used against the African-American community."

In his March 18 speech on race, Obama recounted his first experience of the biblical stories being voiced at Trinity United Church of Christ as being both "black, and more than black." To many, it proved an inspiring riff on Walt Whitman's American notion of containing multitudes. But when it comes to affirmative action, many voters may continue to see the issue in stark shades of black and white.