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Tuesday, October 1, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Michelle Malkin

Ward Connerly: A New Brand Of Civil-Rights Hero

Times Editorial Columnist

A MAN whom posterity will not hesitate to call a great American hero came to town this week.

Future students of history will wonder why his visit here did not warrant front-page news coverage. They will marvel at the personal attacks he and his cause withstood; they will be astonished by the self-serving and disingenuous nature of his opposition; and perhaps, most of all, they will be baffled by the indifference - or worse, antipathy - exhibited by those who now consider themselves "progressives" toward his crusade for equality under the law.

His name is Ward Connerly. He's a businessman from Sacramento, Calif. He sits on the Board of Regents of the University of California. And for the past 10 months, he has served as chairman of the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI) campaign. CCRI, also know as Proposition 209, is a statewide ballot measure that would amend the California constitution to prohibit racial and gender discrimination and preferences by government agencies in public contracting, employment and university admissions.

Last night, Connerly received an award from the Seattle-based Washington Institute for Policy Studies "for his courage and leadership in pursuing equal opportunity and individual freedom for all Americans."

Why should anyone outside California care about Connerly and the CCRI campaign? Because as the Washington Institute astutely recognizes, Connerly and his allies are the next wave in civil-rights history. The battle currently being fought over race and gender preferences in the Golden State - a uniquely multiracial state - is a battle for the future.

No one argues that racism and sexism do not still exist in late 20th-century America. Connerly, a black American who was orphaned at 4 and raised by his grandmother, has known hard times intimately. But he believes it's time to stop looking "in the rearview mirror at racism and segregation and slavery and discrimination" - and instead start looking "through the windshield at the opportunities society offers."

Unlike Gen. Colin Powell, perhaps the nation's most-popular black public figure, Connerly speaks for all who have been wronged by racial and gender discrimination. Unlike liberal Asian-American and Hispanic activists who remain silent about state-sponsored preferential treatment disguised as remediation, Connerly won't let it rest: "Racism and sexism in our society do not justify our government giving a preference to Jose over Chang because Susan's grandfather discriminated against Willie's grandfather 50 years ago."

In a respectful but critical letter to Gen. Powell, who famously recanted his opposition to race and gender preferences this summer, Connerly elaborated: "There are innocent people who are being harmed by government-sanctioned discrimination, practiced in the name of diversity and affirmative action. Under the current system of racial preferences, each and every black and Chicano/Latino applicant to the University of California at San Diego is given 300 bonus points on his or her application over Asian or white applicants regardless of individual circumstances. The son of a black four-star general would receive a preference over the daughter of an Asian dishwasher."

Leaders of the traditional civil-rights establishment brand Connerly a traitor, sellout and Uncle Tom for pointing out such inequities of the racial spoils system. The Rev. Jesse Jackson called him a "hypocrite." One black female legislator in California derided him for marrying a white woman. But his detractors are not only on the left. So-called conservatives in the traditional business establishment have disavowed Connerly's "extremism." And while offering kind words for Connerly, national Republican leaders who pay lip service to self-reliance, individualism and equal opportunity have tiptoed gingerly away from CCRI as a "wedge issue."

Yes, this is a divisive movement and a divisive moment in time. But as Connerly replies: "Do we not believe it was divisive when those from an earlier period said that `Slavery is immoral and should be ended?' Was it not divisive when our nation's people fought among themselves over this very issue? Was it not divisive when we sent troops into Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, to protect the rights of people like Rosa Parks and James Meredith to ensure their right to sit wherever they wanted on the bus and to attend a college that wasn't segregated?"

The civil-rights establishment chafes at such questions. How dare Connerly invoke their history and their heroes? Some perceptive scholars, however, see Connerly and the CCRI crusaders as the true inheritors of the civil-rights legacy. Shelby Steele, author of "The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America" and a professor at San Jose State University, recently drew parallels between Connerly and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Like King, Connerly "is answering an extremely difficult call against enormous odds - in many ways more difficult than King, in that the injustice he's fighting is not as self-evident as the one that King fought against." He is the kind of person, Steele says, "that usually changes history."

Michelle Malkin's column appears Tuesday on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is: malkin1@ix.netcom.com.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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