In case it escapes you, I am a brown-skinned man, who in this nation, is black. And, I have been campaigning to end preferences in America, and, more importantly, to restore some respect for the appreciation of the true principle of equality.

I was born in the Deep South in Louisiana. My father left when I was two and my mother died when I was four. I lived alternately with my grandmother and my Uncle James. Uncle James was a man who never went beyond the third grade. He could not write his name on his paycheck without a lot of coaching from Aunt Bert. Every payday he’d come home, bring the check, sit down and very slowly write “James Lewis.” But, James Lewis was never without work a day in his life.

He had some very simple values, among them that you should always keep your shoes shined. The car had to be shined as well. The lawn had to be mowed. All those things were symbols of respect. And the dogs had to be fed.

Uncle James also said that you don’t judge a book by its cover. In his own simple but eloquent way, he embodied the philosophy that you take people at face value. You don’t expect anything free in this life, but you always take pride in yourself. Your shoes and your car are symbols of that. Your front yard is a symbol of respect for your neighborhood. And the dogs — that was a symbol of being interested in something beyond yourself.

Those were simple values and I learned them well. I also learned that beyond treating others the way you want to be treated, you have to be self-reliant. My uncle always said, “Be a man, stand on your own two feet.”

Living in the South, you were in constant fear for your personal safety. I can still recall today what it meant to live in the Deep South in those oppressive days.

When I was a young man, I met Professor Robert Thompson at Sacramento State College. I said to him, “Dr. Thompson, I don’t know why you keep saying that all men are created equal, because I don’t have a car and Sammy Sanders has a car. How can you say that all men are created equal?” He replied, “Mr. Connerly, it’s not whether you are created equal, it’s the aspiration that you will be equal, and that you will be treated equally by your government. This is what the Declaration of Independence was intended to mean. The day that I can look at you and call you an SOB, and not have you think about my color in relation to yours, is the day that we will have truly overcome and we will be equal.”

Those things never left me.

My grandmother would stand by a washboard while she was doing the laundry and encourage me with a switch. She would say, “I’m simply encouraging you to do your lessons.”

Those memories have never left me either. These were strong families, who happened to be black, who had great pride in bringing up their kids. Today’s is not the first generation where families have disintegrated. Long before now, people were raising families, black families, nine to thirteen kids in the family, and the husband had died and the mother was alone raising the kids. And they did it.

Never before in our history have opportunities been so abundant. Never before. Yet there are those who still believe that you cannot get a fair shake in America. They say: “There is institutional racism. We can’t survive without affirmative action.”

When I began to hear these things, it was like I was living on another planet, because it was foreign to everything that I had learned. Especially the view that you have to use race to get beyond race.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 said we would all be treated equally without regard to race, color, or creed. But in the Bakke decision, the court made a radical turn saying that race matters. That is diametrically opposed to the concept that John F. Kennedy articulated which said that race has no place in American life or law.

But we have been using race with a vengeance.

If you want to be good at doing lay-ups, you practice lay-ups. If you want to be good at bunting, you bunt. If you want to get beyond race, you don’t use race. You don’t practice that which you don’t want to perfect. If we want to get beyond race, we have to stop using race.

There is no public policy in America today that invokes the use of race more than affirmative action. It causes race to seep out of every pore of our lives.

Our political process is infected with the pollution of race-consciousness. The recent Democratic presidential debate at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem was sickening — people were being conned on the basis of their skin color. The crass political appeal was “if you like me, this is what I’m going to do for you based on your skin color.” That’s a radical departure from the whole concept of people being able to make judgements on the basis of what is right for the nation.

Dr. Thompson always said that each of us has a “knower.” That’s when you say, “I just know it. This is the right thing to do.” It’s an internal kind of compass. And we know that treating people differently because of race is wrong.

I was at an event when someone came up to me and said, “I know you feel passionately about this, but don’t screw up the election.” I asked, “Is there anything worth fighting for? Anything sacred in terms of principle? Even if we lose the election? Is there anything?” He never answered.

And so I ask: “Isn’t there something we think is important enough to take a position on, even if it means we are called racist or Uncle Tom?”

The core of what it means to be an American citizen is the right to be treated equally by your government. If you give somebody preference, or you lower the standard because of their skin color, isn’t that discrimination? Of course it is.

Over the years we have crafted a view that as long as we are building diversity, whatever we do is morally right. But discrimination is an individual act. Individuals are affected by it, not groups.

Once we rid the nation of preferences, then we have to start focusing on getting beyond race. What does race mean? In California, one out of every three marriages is interracial or inter-ethnic. Fourteen percent of all children born are multiracial, yet we cling to this concept that race means something. In the 21st century, we are clinging to a 19th-century concept to form public policy. Most black people that you see probably have a lot of Native American or white in them. Yet, we cling to these classifications of race. The census gives us a multiple choice now, but still they classify based on race. So, I am starting my own silent protest. I’m not checking the damn box.

We are now vetting an initiative for the 2002 ballot in California that would prohibit the state from soliciting information about your race, national origin, or ethnicity except for medical purposes. Beyond that, you don’t need to know. If we do that, we would eliminate all this infrastructure that deals with race.