Affirmative action battle brews anew in Michigan

It's a cold time of year to be out collecting signatures. But as Michigan's affirmative action debate heats up once again, that's exactly what opponents of racial preferences in hiring and school admissions are doing.

Last week, the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI) launched a petition drive to let voters decide whether to ban such preferences by state institutions. If the group gathers 317,757 signatures by July 6, its proposed amendment to the state constitution will appear on November's ballot.

Opposition to the campaign has been loud and swift. Protesters gathered at the press conference announcing the drive Monday, and within 24 hours a broad coalition of state business, labor, civic, and religious leaders were calling on constituents not to sign the petition.

"This has been a divisive issue for Michigan all along," says Brig. Gen. (ret.) Michael Rice, executive director of Citizens for a United Michigan, the group that opposes MCRI. "It's only going to get more divisive from here."

Wish they all could be California?

MCRI's campaign is bankrolled and advised by Ward Connerly, a familiar figure in affirmative action cases nationwide. In 1996, Mr. Connerly, chairman of the Sacramento-based American Civil Rights Coalition, sponsored California's Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action programs in hiring, contracting, and public school admissions. Two years later, Connerly successfully promoted Initiative 200 in Washington State to similar effect.

The language of the Michigan petition is nearly identical to these efforts. Adapting wording from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it forbids the state to "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."

Borrowing language from the Civil Rights Act is especially troubling to those who oppose MCRI's efforts.

"That [wording] is just conscious, creative, shameful duplicity," says Luke Massie, national cochair of the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action and Integration and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary (BAMN).

Just look at 209's track record, Mr. Massie says. Minority enrollment in California's more elite public universities fell markedly after 1998 when the proposition took effect.

(These schools did, however, rush to find other ways to boost minority enrollment, including adding outreach programs, expanding admissions criteria, and automatically admitting the top 4 percent of public high school students. By 2002, minority enrollment at these schools was showing improvement.)

Massie says the Michigan petition's parallel language shows MCRI is trying to dismantle affirmative action there, too. BAMN protesters plan to shadow MCRI petitioners and inform potential signers of this, but Massie says it's disingenuous of the group not to make their aim explicit.

This isn't the case, says Jennifer Gratz, MCRI executive director and a plaintiff in the US Supreme Court case that last June upheld affirmative action as practiced at the University of Michigan law school.

Ms. Gratz insists that she does support affirmative action, which she defines as "guaranteed equal opportunity and equal access for everybody."

But to her, that means that as a good student, honor society president, and cheerleader, she deserved to be admitted to the University of Michigan's Ann Arbor campus - her first-choice school - and not the state university's satellite campus where she was accepted instead. Gratz's claim that less qualified minority students were admitted at her expense put her at the center of the lawsuit that eventually made its way to the Supreme Court.

But "equal opportunity and equal access" are also the goals of opponents of Gratz's petition.

The difference, says Daryl Smith, a professor of education and psychology at California's Claremont Graduate University, is that true affirmative action supporters realize that such goals can never be achieved without first interrupting the cycle of disenfranchisement and unequal opportunity that minority students face.

"This is not introducing discrimination into the process," she says. "It's already a discriminatory process." Brown v. Board of Education dealt with that issue 50 years ago, she adds, and largely separate and unequal educational systems remain in place today.

Temporary solution

Dr. Smith and fellow proponents of racial preferences say they expect such measures to be temporary. The question is: How temporary?

Societal groups that receive temporary benefits will always evolve to depend on them, says Peter Wood, professor of anthropology at Boston University and author of "Diversity: The Invention of a Concept." Farmers never volunteer to give up their subsidies, he says, steel companies don't eliminate their own tariffs.

Rice, on the other hand, sees racial preferences as only a step on the road to equal opportunity, but argues it's far too early to scrap such programs.

"Maybe 30 years down the road we'll have evolved to this utopian state where Mr. Connerly and others believe we should be," he says, "but we're not there now."

Rice's coalition is prepared to spend millions fighting the amendment, MCRI to spend such sums promoting it. What MCRI hopes - and what its opponents fear - is that whichever way Michigan decides the issue, other states will follow.

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