COLUMBIA — Jeffrey Williams is an adjunct assistant professor of English and director of access and urban outreach for the Office of Enrollment Management.
But he also grew up in the housing projects in a family that benefited from public aid.
Williams said the affirmative action system works. He opposes the Missouri Civil Rights Initiative, a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban affirmative action in the state. The initiative would appear on the November ballot if enough signatures are collected by the May 4 deadline.
Arguments for both sides of the issue were presented at a forum Wednesday evening at the Gaines Oldham Black Culture Center sponsored by the Missing Minority Campaign. MoCRI Executive Director Tim Asher and Brian Johnson, an independent political consultant, spoke on behalf of the initiative. Opposed were Williams and Roger Worthington, who works with the Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative.
Asher said personal experiences should not shape opinions.
He is the grandson of immigrants who allowed blacks to dance in a store they owned, he said. After a slave girl attended a dance without permission and was removed by force, his family continued to let the blacks congregate; as a result their building was burned.
“I support affirmative action. I don’t support race practices,” Asher said.
Affirmative action is supposed to create equality, he said, but the disparities minorities once faced aren’t as prevalent today. He pointed to presidential candidate Barack Obama as an example.
Worthington, who opposes the amendment, said disparities in accumulated wealth between white and minority families affects their access to quality education. He said this gives whites greater access to education and opportunities, which they then pass on to their children.
“This creates a cycle,” Worthington said.
Both sides agreed there are problems in the educational system that affect minority students but disagreed on whether the initiative will help or hurt the existing disparities.
Groups like By Any Means Necessary, a coalition to defend affirmative action, are trying to prevent the initiative from getting the signatures needed to be on the November ballot.
Neal Lyons of By Any Means Necessary said if the first phase of their campaign is successful, Missouri will be the first state to keep an anti-affirmative action initiative from gaining the required signatures.
Another argument against the bill is that it uses language from the Civil Rights Movement while being against civil rights. Lyons said during the forum that many people requested their signatures be removed because they thought they were signing in support of affirmative action.
MU students David Adams, Anne Zellhoefer and Kate Chute came to the forum to learn more about the issue.
Adams and Zellhoefer both said the arguments against MoCRI were more convincing.
“There’s a real difference in the experience of white Caucasian individuals and black individuals in our society,” Zellhoefer said.
Chute said she remains undecided, while friend and initiative supporter Michael Alexander, also an MU student, said his opinion has not changed.