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New drive to ban race preferences

Initiatives in three states would prohibit affirmative action in public realms.

Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., listens to an audience member's question during the National Council of La Raza annual convention in San Diego, Calif., Monday, July 14, 2008.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

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Tensions are running high in the latest affirmative-action battlegrounds. In Arizona, Nebraska, and Colorado, supporters of ballot initiatives that would ban "preferential treatment" are counting up petition signatures – and opponents are scrutinizing their validity – to see if there's enough support to bring the issue to voters in November.

The American Civil Rights Institute (ACRI), led by Ward Connerly, is pushing the initiatives, which would change state constitutions to prohibit preferences based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the public realms of employment, education, and contracting. Similar ballot measures have succeeded in only three states: California in 1996 and later in Washington and Michigan.

Proponents of affirmative action learned from those votes not to wait until the fall election to make their case to the public. So they've been mustering volunteers now to wage "decline to sign" campaigns.

The initiative fight is one area where race and politics intersect in this election cycle. Some backers of the initiative cite Barack Obama's victory in the Democratic primary as evidence that people of any color can succeed in today's society – though the candidate himself recently stated his opposition to such ballot initiatives. In Nebraska, a pro-initiative radio ad opens with a clip from an inflammatory speech by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, followed by a voice-over noting that "colorblind government" is a way to "reject the politics of race and hate."


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