The ballot initiative, created by educators Glynn Custred and Tom Wood, was championed by Ward Connerly, a University of California regent who, shortly after his appointment to board in 1993, learned of UC’s practice of routinely turning down highly qualified white and Asian students to make room for less qualified black and Hispanic students in the name of "diversity." Connerly’s activism would ultimately compel UC to abolish race-based admissions policies, despite loud protests from Jesse Jackson.
During the course of 1996, Connerly’s tireless efforts on behalf of 209 earned him a national spotlight. He was praised–and fervently condemned–for taking up the anti-quota cause abandoned by the Republican Party the year before. Despite being besieged by death threats and grotesque character assaults–one left-wing California state senator asserted that Connerly didn’t want to be associated with the black race because he was married to a white woman–he persevered, and on November 5, 1996, Proposition 209 passed, 54 percent to 46 percent (with nearly 30 percent of self-identified black California residents voting to abolish racial quotas).
Almost immediately, a consortium of left-wing groups led by the ACLU sued to block enforcement of 209; on December 23, 1996, Carter-appointed US District Court Judge Thelton Henderson issued a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of 209. However, on April 8, 1997, the (normally far-left) US District Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned Judge Henderson’s ruling, claiming that "…a system which permits one judge to block with the stroke of a pen what 4,736,180 state residents voted to enact as law tests the integrity of our constitutional democracy." Seven months later, on November 3, 1997, the US Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the Ninth Circuit Court’s ruling.
209 would not have passed without the leadership and courage of Connerly, who was depicted by the left as an "ethnic cleanser," a "house slave," a "puppet" for white conservatives, and a psychological basket case. It can be argued that, in 1996, Connerly actually replaced Clarence Thomas as the American left’s most despised figure.
The most curious assertion made by the anti-209 crowd was that Connerly and his supporters were naive about the severity of racism in America. Left-wing columnists routinely mocked Connerly for his patriotism and his belief in the country’s intrinsic fairness, insisting that the US hadn’t really progressed that far from the horrors of the Jim Crow era, that Connerly simply denied the continued existence of anti-black racism, and that quotas were "necessary tools" to balance the scales of American justice.
This argument, like most modern left-wing arguments, was based on a strawman. Connerly and other conservatives of prominence have never claimed that all anti-black bias has disappeared from the United States; for example, Rush Limbaugh has routinely acknowledged over the years that there are still, in his words, "pockets of racism" in America. The conservative criticism of quotas, set-asides, and preferences is based on the belief that one cannot combat anti-black bias with anti-white or anti-Asian bias, and that the only way to thwart discrimination is through the implementation of color-blind, and not color-conscious, social policy. Conservatives such as Connerly are the opposite of naive; they merely reject the strange logic of the late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who insisted in 1978′s University of California v. Bakke ruling that "…in order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race." It is the principled belief of Connerly, Linda Chavez, Thomas Sowell and others that, in the words of the late President John F. Kennedy, "Race has no place in American life or law."
Since 1996, Connerly has continued the good fight, albeit with mixed results; while he successfully led a 1998 effort to ban public-sector racial quotas in Washington state, his attempt to do the same in Florida was sabotaged by Republican and Democratic officials in 1999. Currently, he is spearheading an effort to outlaw public-sector quotas in Michigan: he’ll likely secure another high-profile victory this fall.
Regrettably, Connerly will never receive the accolades given to crusaders such as Coretta Scott King; the distribution of such praise is controlled by left-wing interests who long ago declared Connerly ineligible. However, those of us not blinded by progressive ideology recognize Connerly for who he is: a man of courage, a man of honor, a man who would not sit silent while elites declared some forms of discrimination permissible for purposes of "diversity." Connerly is cherished by conservatives, but he is much more than a right-wing icon: he is, indeed, an American icon.