MoCRI: Not a civil rights amendment

By Megan Hope

Charles Ferruzza thought he was doing the right thing.

As the local food critic rushed into Cosentino’s Market in Brookside, he was stopped by one of several petitioners. “I don’t remember exactly what he said,” said Ferruzza, “But he alluded that the petition was about fighting discrimination—instead of encouraging it.”

Only later did Ferruzza learn what he’d signed his name to: a ballot initiative that would end affirmative action and other programs in Missouri designed to address race- and gender-based barriers to equal opportunity in public education, public employment, and public contracting. This means programs that try to boost the participation of minority- and women-owned businesses in public contracts, minority scholarships to Missouri junior colleges and universities, and even publicly funded mentoring programs aimed at women scientists or Latina girls could all be outlawed by an amendment to the state constitution. The amendment is deceptively called the Missouri Civil Rights Initiative (MoCRI).

MoCRI petitioners are trying to gather close to 140,000 signatures by May 4 so the initiative can appear on November ballots. The canvassers, many from other states, are paid $3 to $4 per name collected. Missouri, Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, and Oklahoma are all targeted this year as affirmative action battlegrounds by Ward Connerly, a wealthy California businessman. Connerly and the American Civil Rights Institute he spawned have already succeeded in banning affirmative action programs in his home state, Washington, and Michigan.

Recruiting the Minutemen

As the deadline for MoCRI signatures nears, Connerly is planning for a surge of canvassers to be deployed to the Show-Me state. In an e-mail last week to the conservative National Review Online, he called for “25 individuals who are committed to equal treatment under the law to travel to Missouri. All expenses will be paid and there is the potential to earn big bucks to collect signatures.”

The call to clipboards is being forwarded widely among alleged white supremacist and anti-immigrant groups, including Californians for Population Stabilization, the Betsy Ross Patriots, and the Minutemen. In an e-mail to Minutemen members, Stuart H. Hulbert, a longtime Connerly ally, wrote, “The tie-in with immigration issues is very strong. About 3/4 of all immigrants and probably more like 90% percent of illegal immigrants are immediately eligible the minute they cross the border or get off the plane, on the basis of their ‘race,’ for preferential treatment by all sorts of federally mandated programs.” Much of the content of Hulbert’s email was circulated by Jeff Schwick, head of the San Diego Minutemen, along with a claim that Connerly had personally contacted Schwick to recruit his “standup guys and gals” for detail in Missouri.

Although Connerly denies contacting or even knowing Schwick, civil right activists say harnessing anti-immigrant fervor only makes sense. “[Connerly’s supporters have] targeted states where there’s a white majority electorate and a vocal, if small, extreme anti-immigrant right wing,” said Shanta Driver, who runs By Any Means Necessary, a coalition that defends affirmative action. For anyone who believes that undocumented immigrants are walking off planes and into government-contracted jobs, the notion that affirmative action is unjust isn’t much of a leap.

California: Post-affirmative action laboratory

Connerly and the supporters he readily claims—including Rupert Murdoch, Joseph Coors, the Heritage Foundation, Kansas City businessman John Uhlmann, MoCRI Executive Director Timothy Asher, and others—envision November 4 as a “Super Tuesday for Equal Rights,” when multiple states can simultaneously vote to prohibit “discrimination” and “preferential treatment.”

But it isn’t just their lofty ideals of “justice” that motivate these right-wing conservatives and big-business buddies. Connerly, an African American and former University of California regent, has spent most of his career (and made his millions) consulting and lobbying for the building and construction industry, a network of business and interest groups that have long opposed affirmative action programs.

Since California Proposition 209 banned affirmative action programs in the state beginning in 1997, statistics show women- and minority-owned businesses have suffered. Their share of Department of Transportation contracts dropped from 27.7 percent in 1994 to 8.2 percent in 2002. Connerly doesn’t deny the effects, but celebrates what it means for the firms he works with, who no longer have to comply with affirmative action requirements. “It improves their bottom line not to have to go through this stuff,” he told Ms. Magazine earlier this year.

Other changes in California are evident, too. Although publicly funded gender-targeted health screenings (like breast cancer detection) and women-only domestic violence shelters in California have survived, not all programs have fared as well. When UMKC sophomore Sayra Gordillo attended a student conference in California earlier this year, Latinos told her that minority enrollment in state universities had dropped. “The people I talked to in California told me, ‘You have to fight [the MoCRI] as much as you can,’” she said.

Missouri fights back

Indeed, “Missouri has pushed back like no other state,” said Donnie Morehouse, Associate Director of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri. “We’ve worked together like we’ve never worked together before,” he said, pointing to the diversity of labor groups, business people, faith bodies, community organizations, students, and others on both sides of the state who have united to stop the MoCRI. The WeCAN (Working to Empower Community Action Now) coalition has been organizing volunteers across the state to go to petitioning sites and educate would-be signers by distributing “Think Before You Ink” leaflets and talking to them.

WeCAN is also tracking complaints by people like Ferruzza who say they were deceived or misinformed by canvassers. Missouri state law prohibits the use of deceptive tactics in petition circulation; Morehouse is hopeful that the number of deluded signers will at least attract the attention of Secretary of State Robin Carnahan. In Michigan, where Connerly’s initiative passed in November 2006, hundreds testified that they had been misled or lied to by petitioners. A coalition of groups in Colorado supporting civil rights is considering filing a legal challenge about deceptive canvassers, and, petitioners in Oklahoma have been accused of being untruthful or vague.

The MoCRI and Connerly’s other campaigns take advantage not only on the good intentions of people who support genuine civil rights, said Morehouse, but also on widespread misconceptions. Many people think affirmative action policies involve quotas or set-asides, he says, but that isn’t true. “It’s about reminding ourselves that there are people out there we may not be thinking about.” Morehouse likened affirmative action to using a Rolodex, but having a systematic way to move names from underrepresented categories of the population to the front—people that an employer or admissions officer might not otherwise think of contacting.

Gordillo recalled a white female classmate who believed she had been discriminated against for being white. Gordillo was sympathetic, but explained that affirmative action policies have actually benefited white women more than any other group of people. “I told her, we can make reforms to affirmative action—there are things we can do to fix it, but we can’t fix it if it’s eliminated.”

Capitalizing on ignorance

At a WeCAN hearing about affirmative action held in Kansas City in February, Terry Jones, professor of public policy and political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, testified that the damage done by decades of slavery, segregation, denial of education, and glass ceilings in Missouri has not yet been reversed.

“To pretend that in 2008 all whites and people of color have equal opportunity is to deny history…Mr. Connerly’s proposal banning affirmative action was bad public policy for California, Washington, and Michigan—the three states which have adopted it. It is much, much worse for Missouri. Unlike the other three states, which never legalized slavery and stayed on the more polite side of Jim Crow practices, Missouri’s past–its constitutions and laws–are littered with racism.”

“We’ve left ourselves vulnerable to efforts like MoCRI because of our ignorance about affirmative action and immigration,” said Morehouse.

Missouri House Bill 1463, as an example of misinformation about immigration, would require all state colleges and universities to certify that they do not enroll any “illegal aliens.” As a legislative update by the Missouri Association for Social Welfare explained, “The argument that an ‘illegal alien’ would be taking up a spot that could have gone to a ‘real Missourian’ is bogus, because most of our state colleges do not have enrollment limits, so accepting one student absolutely does not mean excluding some other student.”

The legitimate economic frustrations of Missourians and other Americans will never be alleviated by pretending, as Connerly’s American Civil Rights Institute does, that “Race has no place in American life or law.” The reality is that women and people of color still face unwarranted obstacles.

People like Sayra Gordillo know those obstacles. “It’s been hard enough already,” she said. “But if the MoCRI succeeds, it’s going to get harder.”

Volunteers throughout Missouri are needed to stop the MoCRI. To help, contact Lara at the Jobs with Justice-St. Louis office at 314-644-0466 , Aaron at 314-497-854, or Amy at 314-265-3927. You may also contact Megan Hope at 913-244-4762.

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