The Great Decolorizer

As a student radical in the late sixties, Ed Blum fought for affirmative action. Now, as a middle- aged neocon, he wants to destroy it.

In March, as Ed Blum was maneuvering to dismantle affirmative action in Houston, he made a pilgrimage to California. Accompanying the 45-year-old head of Campaign for a Color-Blind America were two allies "of color": Clear Lake businessman Ed Chen and Bill Calhoun, chairman of the Black Republican Council of Texas. The trio was scheduled to meet Ward Connerly, the black Sacramento businessman who was the most visible supporter of California's Proposition 209, the controversial initiative that abolished affirmative action by the state's government.

For three hours, the Houstonians talked with Connerly. They were riveted as he described how the California initiative evolved, how it faltered, how he turned the fight around and led his movement to victory. He mentioned the death threats he'd received, and the personal vilification they could expect from opponents in their own fight. In the last half hour, Connerly told the three how it felt to be called a traitor to his race.

Calhoun asked Connerly whether the proposition was worth the threats.
"Yes," Connerly replied. "I'd do it again."
After the group left Connerly's office, Blum turned to go to his car, paused, then hugged Calhoun. "There were tears in his eyes," recounts Calhoun. "He said to me, 'I feel about meeting Connerly the same way I felt after finishing my bar mitzvah with my rabbi, the same principles and the same stirrings of idealism and courage.'"

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Of course, the idealism of middle age is different from the idealism of youth -- especially in Ed Blum's case. His personal history is not that of a Klan member or a born-and-bred conservative; instead, he's a former civil rights activist who once supported the very racial set-asides he now fights. At his bar mitzvah, he delivered a speech decrying racial prejudice. As an undergraduate, he worked for an organization demanding that the University of Texas set quotas for minority enrollment. And as a grad student, he studied African literature. "He knows more about Africa than most of my African-American friends," notes Calhoun.

Years later, in his neocon incarnation, Blum still claims that he's fighting for racial equality -- only now, he wants to destroy quotas. And now, his allies are chiefly conservative and Republican, and his enemies are chiefly liberal, black and Hispanic.

After visiting Connerly, Blum felt fired up, ready to accomplish large things. This summer alone, through the Campaign for a Color-Blind America, he's simultaneously waging three large fights that involve Houston: a federal suit to eradicate the racial quotas for HISD's Vanguard program; another federal suit charging that the city of Houston gerrymandered council districts on the basis of race; and a petition campaign to force a referendum on affirmative action goals in city contracts.

And Houston is only Ed Blum's starting point. After winning his first case -- a challenge to the shape of Houston's 18th and 29th congressional districts and another majority-minority district in Dallas -- he set his sights on districts in other states. Counting the Texas case, he's won four of those challenges in the Supreme Court; four more are pending. Those high-profile successes have made him the darling of conservative groups across the country. And if he continues his winning streak, he'll make a significant dent in affirmative action.

What that would mean, of course, depends on who you talk to. By his own lights, and as described by his allies, Blum is leading the final battle against racism. Described by his enemies, he's a button-down bigot, the new, more refined face of racism itself.

Racism is a thing of the past, says Ed Blum; that's why affirmative action is no longer needed. Seventy percent of African-Americans are moving up into the middle class, he claims; it's only a small, "intractable" group that lag behind, largely as the result of their own behavior. For that group, Blum prescribes volunteer work by successful people like himself "to inculcate middle-class virtues and values that will eventually get them out of the ghetto."

To put it mildly, that view is controversial. Houston attorney Gene Locke, who is fighting one of Blum's redistricting suits, typifies the response of many blacks. Blum's concept of the black community, Locke says, verges on fantasy.

"Obviously he sees a different black America than I see," remarks Locke. "Maybe he moves in circles of the black community I don't move in. Certainly, in the streets of Fifth Ward, Third Ward and Fourth Ward, and even in the so-called middle-income black America, the specter of racism is an everyday fact.

"I would view Blum's movement not as an attempt to remove color from consideration," says Locke, "but rather an attempt to institutionalize advantages based on skin color that still remain in our society."

Blum's opponents point to the alarming effects of abolishing racial set-asides. After California's Prop 209 was approved, state schools could no longer consider race in admitting new students, and black enrollment in law schools plummeted. When a court decision eliminated similar admissions practices in Texas, minority applications and acceptances fell sharply at state law and medical schools. This year, the University of Texas's incoming law school class contains not a single African-American. Even Ward Connerly, who so championed Prop 209, recently stated that state schools should perhaps make special outreach efforts to minorities.

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