Ward Connerly, the outspoken affirmative action critic who helped set legislation in motion that banned affirmative action in the state of Michigan, spoke at the Law School this weekend.
A crowd of about 250 students, activists and professors gathered in Hutchins Hall Saturday morning to hear Connerly speak on a panel that also included University Law Prof. Sherman Clark and Yeshiva University Law Prof. Marci Hamilton.
During the program, called “Popular Responses to Unpopular Decisions,” the panelists discussed how the public has responded to legislative decisions like the affirmative action ban. Robert Young, a Michigan Supreme Court justice, moderated the event.
Connerly’s appearance, which was his first at the University since the passage of Proposal 2 – a 2006 ballot initiative that banned the use of race- and gender-based affirmative action at public institutions in Michigan – drew a small group of protesters. About 20 members of By Any Means Necessary, a pro-affirmative action group, protested outside before the event. As Connerly began his opening remarks, some of those members interrupted the founder and chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute by shouting over him.
“You can’t argue racism and racist policy in public and get away with it!” yelled Joyce Schon, a second-year law student at Wayne State University and a BAMN organizer, from her seat.
Despite the interruptions, Connerly simply continued speaking. He mentioned the University when he spoke of his displeasure with a 2003 Supreme Court ruling that allowed the University to continue using affirmative action. That decision, he said, contradicted the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
“Race has no place in American life or law,” Connerly said, quoting President John F. Kennedy. Everyone should be treated as equals “without regard to race, color, or national origin,” he said.
Connerly also talked about his past ballot initiatives in California and Washington, which also banned affirmative action in those states.
During the question and answer session that followed the panel discussion, BAMN members repeatedly asked questions and occupied the microphone lines to speak.
BAMN coordinator Neil Lyons called Connerly a fraud and a liar.
“In a democratic state, you cannot claim any democratic process when it in effect excludes the vast majority of Black, Latino, and Native American students from the top public university of that state,” he said.
“It’s experiences like these that make me challenge direct democracy,” Connerly responded jokingly, causing many in the audience to laugh and applaud.
Connerly then responded more seriously.
“Our nation has changed profoundly since Jim Crow,” he said, pointing out that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama was able to win a primary in a state with a large white majority, even though he is black.
As the noise escalated during Connerly’s remarks, the auditorium lights flickered briefly and BAMN members’ microphones were turned on and off in an attempt to settle BAMN and the rest of the crowd.
Connerly responded bitterly to the BAMN members.
“They hijacked and cheapened the debate,” he said in an interview after the event. “I don’t have high regard for them.”
Clark offered a different perspective on how to handle affirmative action, saying there should be more discussion of middle-ground views, rather than the far-right and far-left idealse that Connerly and BAMN espouse.
As the program ended, people were still lined up to ask questions.