The racial preferences vote in Michigan

My last column in The Boston Globe focuses on the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, passed by voters on November 7, which outlaws racial preferences in the state.

DEPENDING ON who you talk to, the passage of Proposal 2 in Michigan last month was either a great victory for freedom and equal rights or a disastrous setback for minorities and women.

The ballot measure, known as the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, attracted little national attention after 58 percent of voters approved it Nov. 7. Its language is simple: “The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.”

The initiative grew out of two Supreme Court cases challenging affirmative action programs at the University of Michigan. The plaintiff in one case, Jennifer Gratz, had failed to gain admission to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor with a 3.8 grade point average, a score of 25 out of 36 on the college entrance test and a good record of extracurricular achievements. Later, Gratz learned that an African-American or Hispanic applicant with similar qualifications would have been guaranteed admission. She filed a lawsuit, Gratz v. Bollinger.

In 2003, the Supreme Court sided with Gratz, finding that the rigid racial classification system, which automatically awarded applicants 20 points for “underrepresented racial/ethnic minority identification” (compared to five points for outstanding leadership and service), was unconstitutional. However, in the related case of Grutter v. Bollinger, which addressed affirmative action at the university’s law school, the court ruled that more flexible racial preferences were acceptable as a means to achieve diversity.

Yet, while the race-conscious criteria at the law school were less clearly defined, the results were just as obvious. Admissions data showed that for an African-American
applicant, the chance of being admitted was three to 50 times greater than the chance of a white or Asian candidate with similar test scores and college grades. Hispanics also benefited from preferential treatment.

Discouraged by the high court’s decision to green-light such practices, Gratz took her cause to the ballot box. With help from Ward Connerly, the African-American California businessman who had led a successful fight to outlaw racial preferences in California and Washington, she founded the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative group.

In other circumstances, Gratz — a woman who experienced discrimination and fought back — would have been hailed as a feminist hero. Instead, some denounced her as a racist.

Yet many people, including such black writers as Shelby Steele and John McWhorter, argue that affirmative action has in fact become the new racism. Not only does it discriminate against those denied admission to universities, but it also tells its supposed beneficiaries that they cannot succeed under neutral standards. As McWhorter once told me in an interview, African-American culture is saddled with a legacy of racism that makes many young people view academic achievement as a “white thing.” Under these circumstances, “the last thing you want is a policy that doesn’t expect the best of its young people. Lower the bar, and you’re encouraging them to only do as well as they have to.”

Some affirmative action opponents have compared racial preferences to Jim Crow. It’s an inflammatory parallel, to be sure. Yet consider one deeply ironic moment during the campaign against the initiative : At a fund-raising dinner, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick declared, “We will affirm to the world that affirmative action will be here today, it will be here tomorrow and there will be affirmative action in the state forever.” In 1962, it was Alabama Governor George Wallace who declared, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Two years later, segregation was outlawed by the historic Civil Rights Act. That act was never meant to enshrine racial preferences, only to guarantee equality. ffirmative action began as a system of outreach to ensure that minority candidates and women got an equal chance to compete. Today, it has become a system of well-meaning discrimination.

The Michigan initiative prevailed even though its supporters were outspent 2 to 1, despite opposition from both Governor Jennifer Granholm and her Republican challenger, Dick DeVoss. It won despite hysterical and deceptive ads that compared the proposal to Hurricane Katrina and Sept. 11, and despite false claims that the measure would end to public funding for breast cancer screenings.

The initiative’s opponents have depicted this victory as the result of white men fighting to retain their privilege. But maybe it’s really about Americans taking action to end a regrettable detour in the battle for true civil rights.

There is much more on the story. The morning after the iniative passed, University of Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman announced that the university would find some way to “overcome the handcuffs” of the new law, i.e. to get around it — including possible legal action. Late last month the threat of legal action was dropped. Meanwhile, other Michigan schools such as Wayne State law school are considering experiments with “proxies for race,” criteria that are explicitly designed to replicate racial preferences. At least one affirmative action supporter at Wayne State disagrees:

Laura B. Bartell, a professor of law, is a backer of affirmative action. But now that the state’s voters have disagreed, she said, the measure must be applied. She said she did not believe the consideration of past discrimination or tribal status could survive a court challenge. And she said that even if law professors believe in affirmative action, they need to follow the voters’ will. “I was a vocal opponent of Proposition 2, but it passed,” Bartell said. “We’re a law school. One of the things we teach our students is that they must comply with the law.”

What a radical notion.

The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative website is here, with many links to news stories and campaign ads.

Also relevant to this story: my 2001 Salon.com article, “Secrets and Lies,” which examines — using the University of Michigan as its prime example — the ways in which racial preferences have spawned a culture of Soviet-like secrecy and deception about race and academic standards at elite universities. It is no accident, perhaps, that the campaign against Proposal 2 in Michigan was based on some outrageous lies as well, such as claims that the law would end public funding for domestic violence shelters and breast cancer screening. (In California, a similar law was used to challenge women-only domestic violence shelters. I happen to think that the lawsuit had merit — I don’t believe publicly funded domestic violence programs should discriminate on the basis of gender — but the lawsuit did not succeed.)

Similar initiatives are now being considered in other states. Stay tuned for more news on this new civil rights movement.

9 Comments

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9 responses to “The racial preferences vote in Michigan

  1. Harry

    I really enjoyed this column, Cathy (and posted on it), especially the fact that you quoted the actual text of the MCRI. The media will go on and on about how “some fear” its adoption might close womnen’s shelters or other far-fetched fantasy, but they rarely seemed to quote the proposed amendment.

    Odd, isn’t it?

  2. ada47

    Hi Cathy
    Great column, great issue.

    This will be interesting to watch. I am very glad that fair-minded, rational people like you are taking up the anti-affirmative action cause. I also applaud people like Bartell, and I hope that in her desire to be fair by honoring the will of the voters, she can re-think her stance on AA.

    I tend to fall reliably on the liberal side of the political spectrum, but my views on AA have evolved over the years. As a youngster, AA was appealing to me because it seemed only fair that we should employ such measures to redress the wrongs of the past. I just assumed that anti-AA people were all racist white males, unwilling to give up their historical privilege. Of course it took quite while to see that not all white males have been historically privileged in ways that AA was trying to address, but that may be beside the point here. I started to become suspicious of AA when I was in college, and saw many minority students truly struggling because of poor academic preparation. I wondered whether it might make more sense to take affirmative action (small aa?) in improving inner city schools. But of course it is easier to pat yourself on the back over how many African Americans graduated from Swarthmore than to try to address the increasing poverty/illiteracy/incarceration associated with Black America. A second blow to my AA support came in grad school, where Latin Americans of European decent, usually well educated and otherwise privileged, were treated as AA cases, to make the school look good. While many of these students were outstanding (money, privilege and education tend to do that, even in Argentina and Mexico), and therefore not in need of any kind of preferential treatment, others were not, and would not have been getting a Ph.D. at an Ivy League school if they did not have the right last name. Which struck me as patently unfair to someone with a name like Mary Smith, who happens to be African American, but did not indicate so on her application, and is therefore judged by the “white” standard. The final blows came as I became a grown up in the real world and participated on a faculty search committee, where we were “encouraged” to increase the diversity of the department. Confidentiality prevents me from saying much more, even pseudonymously (is that a word?). Let me just say it is very hard to find minority candidates for faculty positions in biology, as academic careers tend to be the province of at least second generation overeducated/affluent people (most African Americans and Hispanics who did well in science are in med school, not sitting around biology departments contemplating the proliferation rate of snail blastomeres). However, the degree of mental gymnasticking my colleagues were willing to undergo in the name of “fairness” was quite bothersome and finally exposed AA for the sham it is.

    Bottom line-AA hasn’t solved any problems. My guess is that it probably has not done the harm its opponents claimed it would, but it is also just not fair. Unfair, ineffective, we don’t need it.

    Now, if I could only be sure that I wouldn’t lose my job by saying that.

  3. David Schraub

    As you might guess, there are a bunch of issues I might have with this column (I’m definitely in the “Prop 2 = catastrophic setback” camp), but rather than get argumentative, I’m going to ask a genuine question:

    Aside from rhetoric used, what’s the material (tangible, empirically measurable) difference between the “act White” issue as a barrier to academic achievement, and generic insults, name-calling, wedgies, etc that academically studious kids of all races face?

    I ask because I’ve read research that suggests that social pressures against academic achievement tend to manifest along class rather than race lines. This would suggest that the “act White” issue is just a race-specific name for a universal problem that affects Whites and Blacks equally, and thus achievement gaps between Blacks and Whites have to be explained by other forces (such as–survey says–continued effects of racism in structures and institutions).

    And while I’ve got you, my blog was nominated for one of those Weblog Awards. I’d be honored if I got your vote.

  4. Rainsborough

    “Aside from rhetoric used, what’s the material (tangible, empirically measurable) difference between the ‘act White’ issue as a barrier to academic achievement, and generic insults, name-calling, wedgies, etc that academically studious kids of all races face?”

    If there is a difference, it’s pretty obvious. In the one instance, the basis of disparargement has nothing to do with race, only with studiousness and academic achievement. If McWhorter is correct, the basis of disparagement by black students of black students is an association between race and achievement. The premise is that it’s a white thing, and not a black thing, to master the calculus or comprehend literary allusions. So achievement becomes a sort of betrayal of one’s own group.

    It’s an empirical question whether black-on-black scorn is more common and differently motivated than white-on-white scorn. But the difference is clear. Academic achievement sets the achiever apart and may subject the achiever to disapproval of a sort. Does a black achiever also convict himself or herself among other blacks of having done a white (anti-black) thing?

  5. Rainsborough

    Maybe this is going too far astray, but I’ll risk a further suggestion that comes to mind.

    In two recent elections, Jefferson’s for a Lousiana House race, and Kilpatrick’s for the Detroit mayoralty, it can easily be argued that the winner won despite obvious disqualifcations. Why so? Because–and I have to put this crudely and won’t bother to substantiate it as I should–the challenger was successfully categorized by the incumbent as being “their”–the whites’–candidate.

    One might then conclude that it’s a black thing to take bribes and be selected one of the three worst mayors in the country. Or that identification with one’s (historically oppressed) own race can be used for dubious purposes by leaders whose constituents would do better to dismiss forthwith.

  6. Rainsborough

    Maybe this is going too far astray, but I’ll risk a further suggestion that comes to mind.

    In two recent elections, Jefferson’s for a Lousiana House seat, and Kilpatrick’s for the Detroit mayoralty, it can easily be argued that the winner won despite obvious disqualifcations. Why so? Because–and I have to put this crudely and won’t bother to substantiate it as I should–the challenger was successfully categorized by the incumbent as being “their”–the whites’–candidate.

    One might then conclude that it’s a black thing to take bribes and be selected one of the three worst mayors in the country. Or that identification with one’s (historically oppressed) own race can be used for dubious purposes by leaders whose constituents would do better to dismiss forthwith.

  7. David Schraub

    Rainsborough: But that doesn’t, by itself, prove an empirically measurable difference. That is, it may well be that White bullies call the studious student a “nerd” and beat him up, and Black bullies call the studious student “White” and beat him up. Either way, he’s getting beat up, and without proof that one gets beat up (/harrassed/taunted/whatever) more often, then I’d question if there is a substantive difference in how White and Black students deal with this difference, rather than a question of terminology.

  8. Rainsborough

    I guess it’s a matter of numbers, and behind that, the ubiquity of an attitude inimical to accomplishment. I mean, just how intense and effective and extensive is the pressure on the studious in a typical white high school as compared to a typical black high school?
    The reason I’d bet the problem is more acute at the black school is simply that there one finds (I suspect) BOTH the universal anti-nerd attitude AND a race-based anti-nerd attitude.

  9. Synova

    Nit and data point:

    At my school the students with the best grades by far were all popular students.

    The “nerds” had good grades too. They just had, and admitted to, odd interests and strange fascinations.

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