Colorado's affirmative-action opponents are once again sounding the death knell for programs that open doors for women and minorities.
Last week, the Colorado Civil Rights Initiative announced its campaign to put affirmative action to Colorado voters in 2008. If approved, the ballot initiative would amend Colorado's constitution to preclude special treatment in education, employment and contracting.
"Preferences weren't meant to go on for a hundred years, or whatever," says organizer Valery Pech Orr. "We have had these programs in place for 40 years. They have swerved, and are now discriminatory toward groups of people."
But the initiative's challengers, including civil-rights and higher-education activists, say affirmative action is still relevant today. They cite misunderstandings about the program, such as the notion that minorities are taking positions that "belong" to whites.
"A lot of people think that affirmative action is based on racial quotas," says Dennis Apuan, Southern Colorado organizer for Colorado Unity, a statewide equal-opportunity group. "It doesn't have to do with quotas. It provides qualified individuals equal access."
Though the upcoming ballot initiative represents a new threat to affirmative action, it's not Colorado's first.
Orr, a local, has worked against affirmative action since the early 1990s. Her husband's construction company, Adarand Constructors, challenged a federal program that awarded minority- and female-owned businesses with government contracts. The suit, which was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, asserted that affirmative-action curricula had to pass through "strict scrutiny."
As the Adarand suit advanced, Orr, a co-plaintiff, organized state-level efforts to kill affirmative action. In 2001, she worked with legislators on a bill to put the program to Colorado voters.
That attempt was unsuccessful, but it was followed by a similar proposal in 2004. Former state Sen. Ed Jones of Colorado Springs floated another anti-affirmative action bill, which flopped amid outrage from the minority community.
The Colorado Civil Rights Initiative campaign includes some familiar names. Rob Corry, a Denver-based lawyer, partnered with Orr in her first anti-affirmative action crusade. Corry is married to Jessica Peck Corry, a policy analyst with a libertarian think tank, the Independence Institute. Peck Corry's recent critique of the University of Colorado at Boulder's diversity programs spurred Colorado lawmakers to demand a review of the institution's diversity budget.
This negative attention surrounding affirmative action, some say, may help soften Colorado voters to the ballot initiative.
"They wanted to make CU-Boulder look bad by attacking its diversity programs," says Bill Vandenberg of the Colorado Progressive Coalition, a group opposing the plan.
Though Coloradans are pushing this initiative, it has also received backing from the American Civil Rights Institute, a California-based group working state by state to quash affirmative action. ACRI has helped pass similar legislation in Washington, Michigan and California. This year, the organization has targeted Colorado, Arizona, Missouri and Oklahoma. Local proponents lifted the language from prior bans to formulate the ballot initiative.
Vandenburg is skeptical of the out-of-state involvement.
"This is not something that Coloradans are clamoring for," he says. "They know we have made great progress, but we have a long way to go to achieve equal opportunity."
To learn more, go to the Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Community Forum, moderated by NAACP Colorado Springs branch president Rosemary Harris.
Colorado College's Gates Common Room, Palmer Hall, 1025 N. Cascade Ave.
Thursday, May 3, 6-8 p.m.
For details, call Dennis Apuan at 634-1525.