The University gained a reputation as a national leader in the pursuit of diversity in higher education when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that race can be used as a factor in the admissions process. Groups that claim it to be an ineffective and unjustified form of “reverse discrimination” constantly attack affirmative action, and on Thursday, the deceptively named Michigan Civil Rights Initiative submitted the 317,575 signatures necessary to put a question on the 2006 ballot asking Michigan voters to make the use of affirmative action unconstitutional in the hiring and admissions policies of state institutions. If the ballot proposal passes, it has the potential to roll back half a century of civil rights gains in Michigan. Opponents of MCRI must shift from their previous strategy of hampering the campaign with legal obstacles and instead sway voters with a positive case for affirmative action.
University of California Regent Ward Connerly, who led a successful campaign to ban affirmative action in that state’s public universities, has lent his support and influence to MCRI. Between 1995 and 2000, the University of California at Berkeley saw a 43 percent decrease in black enrollment, and a 34 percent decrease in Hispanic enrollment. If the MCRI ballot proposal is successful here, it could lead to similar results at the University.
In the past, the strategy for combating MCRI was to tie up the organization with a litany of court procedings, employing legitimate legal strategies that drained the campaign’s resources, while challenging some of its more dubious tactics. In June, MCRI suffered a major blow when a state circuit court ruled that it would have to collect all the signatures again because the language used on the petition did not clearly state that the ballot proposal would alter the state constitution. That decision was later reversed on appeal, but it did prevent the campaign from getting its proposal on the ballot in 2004. MCRI has survived legal challenges that would have crippled a less organized or well-funded campaign, and, with the submission of the signatures, it appears that the time for legal challenges has come to an end.
Beating MCRI will require a bold, direct and extensive grassroots movement, as well organized and funded as MCRI itself. The recent passage of Proposal 2, which may ban all gay unions in Michigan, can provide some lessons for opponents of MCRI. Opponents of Proposal 2 correctly made legal arguments to insist that the language of the proposal was vague and denied rights to even heterosexuals, but they ignored the obvious argument that discriminating against someone on the basis of his sexual orientation is not only unconstitutional, but is morally wrong. Voters must understand why affirmative action is essential. The vague and misleading language MCRI has used, such as its assertion that to ban affirmative action is to support equal rights and its use of unfounded terms like “reverse discrimination” must be challenged head-on and exposed as the invalid arguments they are.
It is important to note that affirmative action is not a perfect or permanent solution. However, affirmative action is an effective way to help bring about diversity on the nation’s campuses. On the day that children of all races receive comparable educations, affirmative action will no longer be necessary. Until then, affirmative action will remain vital to the commitment to diversity that is one of the University’s greatest strengths. It is for this reason that the MCRI ballot proposal must be defeated.