AS a young child in Louisiana, Ward Connerly, who is black, says he had to wait in a car while an aunt who could pass for white bought food for the family at restaurants.
In college, he saw blacks and foreign students with dark skin excluded from the main residential neighborhood across from his university campus.
Now the Sacramento businessman says he is driven by his roots to try to end discrimination - by rolling back 30 years of affirmative-action laws.
To his critics - including many friends - Mr. Connerly is a hypocrite who has turned his back on his race, while supporters hail him as a visionary fighting against unfairness at great personal risk.
Whatever the interpretation, he has emerged as one of the nation's most visible foes of the complex laws that give minorities and women preference in hiring and promotion.
The University of California regent made national headlines last summer for spearheading moves to jettison gender and racial set-asides for university admissions. Now he is leading the drive to pass a ballot initiative in California that would end all state programs granting preferences to women and minorities - perhaps the nation's most visible and controversial attempt to reverse affirmative action.
Thus this pinstriped money manager has come to embody many of the conflicts and complexities that surround the growing debate over how best to deal with racial equality in a modern society.
''The purpose of affirmative action has been noble, perhaps even necessary until now,'' says Connerly. ''But the happy face we have put on these practices to achieve diversity has become to me morally indefensible.''
Because Connerly is an articulate minority who advocates the California Civil Rights Initiative, much of the political spotlight has shifted away from the ballot proposal and to the man.
''Unknown a year ago, he is getting praise and criticism from every corner of the political spectrum,'' says Tom Lowe, a Sacramento-based political analyst. He says Connerly's new-found notoriety has even earned him mention as a prime candidate for a White House Cabinet position.
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