New drive to ban race preferences
Initiatives in three states would prohibit affirmative action in public realms.
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His opponents believe just as strongly that affirmative action is still an important tool to promote equal opportunity for minorities and women, as well as to reach goals such as diversity in higher education. When they explain to people that the initiatives would threaten scholarships and efforts to hire women and minority faculty, many decide not to sign the petitions, they say.Skip to next paragraph
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Still, once the matter is before voters in the privacy of the ballot booth, "if an overwhelmingly white electorate is given an opportunity ... to uphold white privilege, the majority are going to do it," says Donna Stern, coordinator of a Detroit-based group called BAMN: Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary.
Opponents have accused Connerly's campaigns of hiring paid signature-gathering groups that show a pattern of violating rules and misleading voters. Some opponents have videotaped petition circulators to try to prove their claims.
"Paid signature-gathering isn't inherently bad ... [but some] organizers don't feel accountable to the rules," says Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a progressive group in Washington that helps document fraud and pushes for reforms. (Ballot initiatives are allowed in 24 states.)
Connerly and state initiative organizers deny such allegations. They fault their opponents for giving voters incorrect information – by saying, in Nebraska for instance, that the proposal would threaten breast-cancer screenings.
Despite activist "blockers," Connerly and state initiative organizers say they expect to turn in signatures in Arizona and Nebraska beyond the minimum needed to qualify. At press time, they were not ready to state how many they had gathered.
In Arizona, universities generally don't use race as a factor in admission. What's at stake are programs such as one to help Hispanic women improve their college graduation rate or another to support women studying engineering, says State Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D), chair of Protect Arizona's Freedom, a coalition against the initiative. Other programs that could be affected include state and local goals for getting bids from minority and woman-owned businesses.
The policies that would be subject to change vary state by state, but higher education is where the debate over affirmative action, or preferences, has played out most strongly in recent years. In 2003, the United States Supreme Court struck down a University of Michigan undergraduate admissions policy that assigned points to race, but it upheld the law school's more narrowly tailored policy. The law school considered race as one element in efforts to promote the educational value of diversity.
In 2006, the Connerly-backed initiative passed in Michigan with 58 percent of the vote, making the law there more restrictive than what the high court allowed nationwide. The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor revamped its admissions policies to promote diversity while complying with the law, says Lester Monts, senior vice provost for academic affairs.
This year's freshman class is projected to be about 10.5 percent African-American, Hispanic, and native American, down slightly from 10.9 percent last year. In 2003, these groups made up about 13 percent of undergraduates.
Mr. Monts says he's glad the declines are not as strong as what the University of California experienced after the change there in 1996. But, he says, educators in other states are right to believe their diversity efforts are threatened by such initiatives: "We've had to increase our admissions staff [and] our financial-aid budget. Other universities may not be in a position to do those kinds of things."