HAYDEN — Ward Connerly would like to dropkick "the hyphen."
The hyphenated word African-American, that is.
"I have never been to Africa," the Hayden man said. "I have more Choctaw (Native American descent) and Irish in me than African. Why I’m separated by the rest of America by a hyphen makes no sense to me.
"I’m a brown-skinned guy who has relatives whose skin color runs the gamut of the crayon box. Let’s get rid of the hyphens that divide Americans."
Connerly, who led initiatives against racial-based affirmative action spanning multiple presidents, and his partner, Janice Camarena, will attend a reception in honor of Black History Month featuring President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump on Tuesday at the White House.
Connerly said he doesn’t know for sure why he and Camarena were invited by the president’s Social Office, but he strongly suspects it has something to do with his interaction with five previous presidents on the movement against affirmative action and similar efforts at the state level, starting when he served on the University of California’s Board of Regents.
"One never knows how you get on their list," he said with a smile. "But I suspect, in my case, it comes from being a long-time Republican who strongly supports the president. We did not solicit the invitation, but lo and behold, it came..."
Camarena said Connerly, 78, is known as the "grandfather of anti-affirmative action." He was featured in several articles on the topic, including Parade magazine, L.A. Times and Washington Post.
Born in Leesville, La., in 1939 during the days when Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation in the South, Connerly said his passion against affirmative action is rooted with his upbringing.
"When you put that into context (with the ancestral background), you should reach the conclusion this guy probably believes in the notion of equality for all Americans," he said. "I think affirmative action betrays the fundamental belief in our founding documents (and the 1964 Civil Rights Act). By definition, using the color of skin to divide people is not supposed to happen."
Connerly recalls giving a speech on St. Patrick’s Day in Philadelphia. Toward the end, he said, he needed to wind it up to honor part of his heritage.
"It was a friendly audience, but there was some chuckling in the audience," he said. "They found it amusing that a guy with brown skin was part Irish. My grandmother is full-blooded Irish, so why was I the skunk in the party to acknowledge my Irish heritage? We are truly a melting pot in this country, but we have been told that the color of our skin suggests our heritage. That’s why I detest the hyphen. We put people in boxes and we don’t let them out."
Racial-based affirmative action brought Connerly and Camarena together.
Camarena said she grew up in a racist home.
"I grew up hearing that God put people on different parts of the planet because they were never meant to mingle," she said.
When Camarena was attending college in California, she was told an English class she attended was for black students only.
"It was run under the premise that students learn better if everyone in the class is the same race," she said.
At the time a widowed mom and 25-year-old college student who had never gotten involved in politics, Camarena said the situation consumed her to the point she wrote a paper about it despite being told not to.
When anti-affirmative action gained media attention with her name attached, Gov. Pete Wilson and Connerly contacted her.
"There was a booming voice over the phone and it was Ward," she said. "He said, ‘We’re starting this proposition. Do you want to come along side of us?’"
Camarena said she wants to share something else with Trump. Her son, Jeremy Armstrong, died at 29 of traumatic brain injury sustained while serving in Afghanistan.
"We fought with the V.A. for years," she said, fighting back tears. "He may still be here if they hadn’t just kept on giving him pills. When Jeremy came home, he was a kid who was hurt and I didn’t recognize it. I’m very thankful that President Trump is finishing the mission on the war on terror that my son was sent to do."
Camarena said she has found Kootenai County, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, to be extremely supportive of veterans’ families since she has moved here.
Connerly also praised Trump, calling him "the most consequential president we have ever had." He cringes when Trump is accused of being racist.
"It is our duty as citizens to be engaged and support the person we’ve hired to be our leader," he said. "I know the president has a lot more support than what is visible. I’m too much of a fighter to let (critics citing racism) win. If they win, it will not be by default."