DENVER -- Intent on dismantling affirmative action, activists in five states have launched a coordinated drive to cut off tax dollars for programs that offer preference based on race or gender.
They aim to put affirmative action bans on the November ballot in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma. The effort is being organized by California consultant Ward Connerly, who has successfully promoted similar measures in California, Michigan and Washington.
Supporters of affirmative action say the initiatives will be difficult to block, given that Connerly has a proven ability to raise funds and persuade voters, even in more liberal states.
"They've targeted states where there's a white-majority electorate and a vocal, if small, extreme anti-immigrant right wing," said Shanta Driver, co-chairwoman and national spokeswoman of By Any Means Necessary, a coalition that defends affirmative action. In such states, she said, "it's extremely difficult for us to win."
Connerly's campaign - which he has called "Super Tuesday for Equality" - also could get a boost if the presidential ballot includes a black or a woman. That would help him make the case, he said, that the playing field is level and minorities no longer need a hand up.
In most states, Connerly has until spring or summer to collect enough valid signatures to put the measures on the ballot. His allies have submitted more than 140,000 signatures in Oklahoma.
Petitions are circulating in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri and Nebraska. (The number of required valid signatures varies from about 76,000 in Colorado to about 230,000 in Arizona.)
If successful, the ballot measures would ban a broad range of programs designed to overcome racism and discrimination.
One such program, in Tucson, Ariz., treats a minority- and female-owned company as the low bidder for some construction contracts, even if its proposals come in as much as 7 percent higher than a bid from one owned by a white male rival.
Academic mentoring targeted at specific groups, such as female engineering majors or Hispanic teens, would be banned. The University of Colorado would have to cancel - or redefine - more than 100 scholarships that award funds based on gender or race.
As he has in the past, Connerly is promoting the ballot measures as "civil rights initiatives."
The wording differs slightly from state to state, but in general the measures say: "The state shall not discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to any group or individual on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin. ..."
Opponents say that is misleading because it doesn't explicitly say that affirmative action would be banned. "What Ward Connerly is banking on - and it's a sad thing - is a lack of information among the public," said the Rev. Gill Ford, a regional director of the NAACP.
The debate also might become entangled in immigration politics.
Arizona, Colorado and Oklahoma recently passed some of the nation's toughest laws aimed at stopping undocumented immigrants from holding jobs or receiving government benefits. Missouri is weighing similar measures.
Nationally, debate rages about such immigrants' efforts to get driver's licenses and pay in-state tuition. A public angry at mostly Hispanic immigrants might be in no mood to listen to arguments about the need for racial preferences.
"Many topics have the ability to dominate public attention this year," said Arizona state Rep. Ben R. Miranda, a Democrat leading the opposition to Connerly. "We may not have enough time to educate the public."
Supporters of affirmative action made a strong - and well-funded - stand against a 2006 Connerly-sponsored ballot measure in Michigan. Republicans and Democrats, union leaders and business executives, women's groups, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Roman Catholic Church all spoke out against the initiative. Still, it passed with 58 percent of the vote. Affirmative action bans in California in 1996 and Washington in 1998 also passed by substantial margins.
Connerly, who is of black, white and American Indian heritage, began fighting racial preferences as a member of the University of California Board of Regents in the mid-1990s. He has said he came to the issue after meeting a white couple whose son had been rejected from several UC medical schools; they believed less-qualified minority students had an unfair edge in admissions. A land-use consultant by training, Connerly now devotes himself to anti-affirmative action campaigns.
Even after a decade, the effect of his initiatives in California and Washington is not clear-cut. Minority enrollment at public universities plunged at first but has rebounded, except at a few of the most elite campuses.
In the economic sphere, a California Department of Transportation study found last year that, based on the agency's numbers, women- and minority-owned businesses should be getting 19 percent of state transportation contracts. In fact, their share is 11 percent.
Significant disparities in income among races exist in all five states Connerly is targeting, with Asians on top, then whites, then Hispanics, then blacks. The exception to that order is Arizona, where blacks earn more than Hispanics.
In Colorado, the median household income for whites is about $55,000 and for blacks about $35,000. In Nebraska, the figures are $47,000 for whites, $37,000 for Hispanics and $28,000 for blacks, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The Supreme Court has made clear that affirmative action is not a long-term solution to racial disparities. In 2003, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote: "We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary."
Stephanie Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times.
Activists are working to put bans on affirmative action on the November ballot in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma.