Opportunity at Risk at the Ballot Box

Alan Jenkins

With Election Day just two months away, the presidential campaigns are (finally) beginning their home stretch. At the same time, voters are starting to pay attention to a dizzying array of ballot initiatives that will also be on the November ballot in many states. Referenda in two states, Colorado and Nebraska, deserve particular attention because, if passed, they would cripple equal opportunity efforts that are especially important in these changing times. The many Coloradans and Nebraskans working to defeat those initiatives are on the right side of history.

Both initiatives are the handiwork of wealthy California businessman Ward Connerly, who has successfully pushed similar initiatives in California, Michigan, and Washington State. Using identical language, the Colorado and Nebraska initiatives would make it illegal for public institutions to consider gender or race in public higher education, employment, or contracting, even in order to overcome identified discrimination or to promote inclusive college campuses.

Connerly had initially promised referenda in eight states—a “Super Tuesday” against opportunity. But several never got off the ground, and his efforts in Arizona, Missouri, and Oklahoma failed when the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and others showed that large numbers of the signatures that Connerly’s forces offered officials were false, inaccurate, or incomplete.

The remaining initiatives in Colorado and Nebraska are wrongheaded. They squelch voluntary efforts to expand opportunity at a time when doing so is crucial to our national progress, and to the common good.

We’ve made great strides as a nation toward the goal of opportunity for all. And each time we’ve expanded opportunity—the idea that everyone deserves a fair chance to achieve his or her full potential—to more Americans, we’ve benefited as a nation of more prosperous, better educated, and more cohesive people. Indeed, opportunity for all is the embodiment of our national motto, e pluribus unum, “from many, one.”

But research and experience show that we’re not there yet. After decades of progress, for example, women in America earn just 77 cents for every dollar that men earn. Predominantly African-American and Latino public schools are far more likely to have fewer resources, more students per classroom, and fewer trained and certified teachers per school. And women and minority entrepreneurs are more likely to face barriers to fair loans, contracts and the “good ole boy” networks that still hold sway in much of the business world. Despite our national progress, too many women and communities of color remain unplugged from opportunity. Given that reality, achieving our national promise requires proactive efforts to expand opportunity for everyone, not just a pledge to do no harm.

The Colorado and Nebraska referenda will have far-reaching negative effects. Outreach to encourage women and other students from underrepresented groups to apply to state universities would become suspect, as would recruitment of an inclusive public workforce. State and local efforts to ensure equal opportunity in employment, business, and commerce would be hampered.

Mandating that kind of straitjacket when our universities, corporations, and people are working hard to adapt to an increasingly globalized economic environment just doesn’t make sense. Connerly’s initiatives are a bad choice for our states, our nation, and the common good.

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