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Affirmative Action on Ballot in Three States: A Debate

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Affirmative action programs in at least three more states could come to an end this November, thanks to proposed ballot measures spearheaded by California millionaire and former University of California regent Ward Connerly. The states in question are Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska. Opponents of affirmative action had also been campaigning in Missouri and Oklahoma but failed to gather enough signatures to get their initiatives on state ballots. We host a debate between Jessica Peck Corry, the executive director of the Colorado Civil Rights Initiative, and Melissa Hart, the president of Coloradans for Equal Opportunity. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Affirmative action programs in at least three more states could come to an end this November, thanks to proposed ballot measures spearheaded by California millionaire and former University of California regent Ward Connerly. The states in question are Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska. Opponents of affirmative action had also been campaigning in Missouri and Oklahoma but failed to gather enough signatures to get their initiatives on state ballots.

I’m joined right now by two guests on opposing sides of the debate here in Colorado. Jessica Peck Corry is executive director of the Colorado Civil Rights Initiative, which is the name of the proposed anti-affirmative action constitutional amendment. That’s Amendment 46. She’s also director of the Campus Accountability Project and Property Rights Project at the Independence Institute, a Colorado-based free market think tank. Melissa Hart is also with us. She is president of Coloradans for Equal Opportunity, a group opposed to Amendment 46. She is a university professor at University of Colorado.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Let’s begin with you, Jessica. Explain the amendment that is now on the Colorado ballot, to be voted on in November.

JESSICA PECK CORRY: This amendment would prohibit the government from considering a candidate’s race or gender in college admissions or any sort of educational environment, as well as public contracting and hiring.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did it get on the ballot? Talk about what’s behind it —


AMY GOODMAN: — how you got involved.

JESSICA PECK CORRY: Well, this has really been an eight-year effort here in Colorado, homegrown. We’ve had some national support, which has been very helpful. But there’s a coalition, a very broad-based citizen-led coalition here in Colorado. And this has been sort of a personal crusade in my own life since I was a college student. I’m the youngest of four children from a single-parent family, and so I’ve always believed very strongly in an individual’s ability to make it, but also in the belief that we should no longer treat women and minorities like we’re second-class citizens or just make assumptions about our race or our gender as related to our ability to compete.

AMY GOODMAN: And so what does the bill exactly say?

JESSICA PECK CORRY: The bill says that the government — the amendment says government shall not discriminate nor grant preferential treatment on the basis of race or gender in those three areas that we talked about — government contracting, hiring and [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: [inaudible] What’s the matter with this?

MELISSA HART: Well, there are a lot of things that are the matter with this bill. First of all, although I know that Ms. Corry has been working on this question of affirmative action for a long time, this is a bill that was — is identical to Proposition 209, passed in California twelve years ago. Ward Connerly from California is bringing this around the country into different states, taking identical language and passing it, without thought to the different circumstances in different states and the effect it will have. This is not a Colorado bill. It’s being brought into our state and funded by out-of-state interests, not by in-state interests. And I think a lot of us here in Colorado are tired of out-of-state interests coming and amending our constitution about anything.

Second, in terms of the substance of the bill, it uses language that is deceptive. It says — it starts — what the language actually says is, the state shall not discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to any individual on the basis of various categories. And lots of people reading that bill think, “Oh, I agree, the state shall not discriminate,” and think that they support it and don’t understand that what it actually is intended to do is to end any kind of affirmative action programs, including recruiting and training and programs designed to create opportunities for groups that are constantly, continually — not in the past, but right now — denied opportunities on a regular basis. And so, that deception, I think, is very troubling to a lot of us here. And we don’t want it here.

AMY GOODMAN: Jessica Corry, what about Melissa Hart’s first point, that this is outside initiative that has been brought into the state?

JESSICA PECK CORRY: It’s simply is not true. In 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2005, there were all citizen-led efforts at the State Capitol, where we presented language just like this. And in those situations, Ward Connerly had nothing to do with it. That being said, in the states where these initiatives have been proposed by Ward Connerly — and I’m assuming he worked with citizen coalitions there, as well — there has been an incredible broad base of support, winning by 58 percent — 54 to 58 percent in Washington, California and Michigan. So I think people are ready for this.

My concern is that we look at race and gender as proxies for the real problems we face. We have a class-based problem in this country. And in Colorado, in particular, we have about 70 percent a white population. We have incredible levels of advantage or disadvantage based on geography, based on parent income, and there’s not a single affirmative action program that will be destroyed through this initiative, if those programs are open to everybody based on race and gender. Let’s get to the heart of the problem, and that’s that we’ve got poor kids who can’t make it, and those kids may be boys, they may be girls, they may be black, white, Latino, Asian or whatever. That’s what we’re talking about. Let’s try a progressive new approach here.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Hart?

MELISSA HART: Again, I can’t disagree that there’s a class-based problem in the country that also needs addressing, but suggesting that the only issue is class and that there are not still disadvantages in our society that come with being a woman or with being a minority, regardless of your family income, but again in particular with family income, is ignoring the reality that people face discrimination on a regular basis.

The kinds of programs that will be eliminated if this initiative passes in Colorado include programs like a University of Colorado program that gives girls — and it is specifically targeted to girls — who are interested in engineering and math an opportunity to develop that interest in high school. It is simply not true to suggest that the reality of a drop-off in interest in science and math is the same for girls and boys. It’s not the same for girls and boys. Girls who start out interested in math and science end up going into other fields because they’re discouraged along the way. Having programs that acknowledge that and that provide opportunities is not treating girls as second-class citizens. It’s giving girls the opportunity to be at the same place that boys are. And having programs that recruit in minority neighborhoods, where the opportunities to go to college are not as widely understood, is not treating minorities as second-class citizens. It’s giving them opportunities they are denied.

AMY GOODMAN: Jessica Peck Corry?

JESSICA PECK CORRY: Well, what is race? That’s one of the biggest problems we face. One in ten Colorado students decides when they fill out their college application that they will not define by race. We have a twenty-fold increase in the number of interracial marriages in America. I look at my own family, four children. Two of them married immigrants. How do we define the race of their children? Are they the oppressor or the oppressed? Are they disadvantaged or advantaged? We’re too diverse as a country to simply put people in these boxes. That’s my concern. Let’s go to Colorado’s poor schools. Let’s go to Manual High School, which we were just talking about before we came on air. Let’s reach out to every kid there, not just the black kids or not just the women.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Hart, how are you organizing against this initiative?

MELISSA HART: There are a couple different things. One of the things that Coloradans for Equal Opportunity and other groups are doing is to challenge the fraudulent collection of signatures that went on for Amendment 46. Our hope, frankly, is that this misleading initiative won’t be on the ballot at all because of the kind of dishonesty that went on in collecting signatures. So that effort is continuing.

At the same time, we’ve proposed a homegrown alternative initiative to Amendment 46 that also says preferential treatment on the basis of these categories will not be permitted, but then defines preferential treatment specifically so that it can’t be used in a far-reaching way to eliminate equal opportunity programs. What Initiative 82, for which we’re collecting signatures right now, does is it defines preferential treatment as using quotas or rewarding points solely on the basis of various protected characteristics. That way we can get rid of things that people genuinely don’t like and make clear that they’re not acceptable in Colorado — that is, quotas and point systems — without getting rid of the programs that there’s generally very huge public support for.

AMY GOODMAN: And who is supporting you?

MELISSA HART: Well, Coloradans for Equal Opportunity is a coalition that’s been created to support this initiative. Colorado Unity is an organization that supports education about affirmative action that’s been very helpful in trying to get more education about the issues in our state.

AMY GOODMAN: The other grassroots groups?

MELISSA HART: Those are the two primary grassroots groups involved. Colorado Progressive Coalition has been incredibly supportive. And I think there’s just generally a huge Colorado effort, not grassroots groups, but just individuals who are the grassroots.

AMY GOODMAN: Jessica Peck Corry, how are you trying to get this passed?

JESSICA PECK CORRY: Well, I just need to quickly say that fraud allegations have been repeated again and again, and we are rigorously defending our signatures, and we reject any notion that there was any fraud whatsoever. Can’t talk about specifics, because it’s pending litigation, but we have every confidence we’ll be on the ballot. We are working with small business owners. We’re working with families. We’ve got hundreds of people on our email list who are going to go out there and talk to people about this. Colorado is ready for a progressive new approach, and that’s looking at the individual, not putting minorities and women into boxes, saying they can’t make it in this world on their own.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. We’ll connect to your websites. I thank you both for being with us. Our guests have been Melissa Hart, president of Coloradans for Equal Opportunity, as well as Jessica Peck Corry, executive director of the Colorado Civil Rights Initiative.

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