On race, class and the school system

Jul 15, 2009 at 5:00 am

ATLANTA—I did an NPR interview debating Ward Connerly on diversity and civil rights a few years ago. It was interesting. For those of you not familiar with Connerly (shame on you if you’re not), he is the fellow at the heart of California’s “Proposition 209,” which outlawed race- and gender-based preferences in state hiring and state university admissions.

In effect, it killed affirmative action.

Connerly is a fascinating guy. You’d expect his type of crusade against affirmative action (which he has taken nationwide over the last few years) to be the brainchild of a racist or racially insensitive Klan sympathizer of a lighter hue. Not the case with Connerly — he’s black — although he will tell you he’s not. Like Tiger Woods, he does everything in his power to separate himself from his blackness. Connerly contends that he is only one-fourth black, with the rest a mix of Irish, French and Choctaw. Puh-lease!

Connerly’s anti-blackness didn’t start yesterday. Like Clarence Thomas, he dove through the racial escape hatch many years ago. In every respect, he seems to have crafted himself as the perfect racial hitman for the Right. There’s a nice market for black people who hate black people. Connerly is so extreme that I thought his views had to be a part of an expertly contrived act for profit. I was wrong.

About 20 minutes into our interview, I thought to myself, “Oh shit, he really believes this stuff. It’s not a sham — he really believes it!” Beyond that, Connerly was a really nice guy — even sweet. He gave me his cell number and demanded that I could not stay in a hotel if I came to Sacramento, that I had to stay with him. Could you imagine me and Ward under the same roof for a whole night? There would be blood.

Bottom line: Ward is a nice guy, but he’s doing a bad, bad thing.

The same may be said of Louisville attorney Teddy Gordon and his supporters. On second thought, I’ve met Teddy, and he is nowhere near as nice as Connerly. Gordon, who successfully challenged the Jefferson County Public School system’s student assignment plan that used race to ensure school diversity a few years ago before the U.S. Supreme Court, is at it again.

Gordon recently filed a lawsuit that argues the new JCPS assignment plan still relies too heavily on race. According to JCPS, the new plan considers the income and education level of a student’s family as well as race. In other words, JCPS began relying more heavily on class.

Guess what? Once assignments were determined by supposedly considering class ahead of race, the student spray-pattern looked pretty much like it did before. Why? Because, as I’ve argued for years (and the non-fool Message readers know), there is still a powerful link between race and class in America. Somebody at JCPS knows this. Problem is, Gordon knows it, too.

JCPS Superintendent Sheldon Berman said maintaining a student assignment plan is critical because “it preserves diversity in our community and values that have been seen as important here for more than 30 years.”

I agree with Berman, but we have a problem. Unfortunately, Gordon has a viciously conservative Supreme Court led by Antonin Scalia and that aforementioned Thomas fellow on his side. Beyond that, many Kentuckians don’t want diversity. They’re comfortable with everybody looking like them and coming from where they come from.

This archaic, closed-minded mentality exists on multiple social and political levels and needs to cease or Kentucky will continue to lag. Schools are good places to start fighting this crap. More Kentuckians would be well advised to stand up and fight, too. If you don’t, well, welcome to a place not even preferable to Mississippi.

Like Connerly, Gordon may actually believe in this foolishness. Sadly, he will probably win again — but in doing so, he’s doing this city, state and country a great disservice.

Remember, until next time — have no fear, stay strong, stand on truth, do justice, and do not leave the people in the hands of fools.


Dr. Ricky L. Jones is professor of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville. His column is published the third week of each month. Visit him at www.rickyljones.com.