The Diag was transformed into a hotbed for political discussion yesterday, with a number of student groups voicing their opinions on affirmative action.
Two events in particular took the main stage: a rally held by pro-affirmative action group BAMN, during which former presidential candidate Al Sharpton spoke and high school students engaged in profanity-laced shouting matches with affirmative action opponents; and a day-long demonstration put on by campus minority groups, in which students wore gags to represent the loss of minority voices they said would occur if affirmative action is eliminated in the state.
Both groups were on the Diag to protest the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, a ballot initiative that, if passed, would make it illegal for public institutions in Michigan, including universities, to consider race, ethnicity, national origin or sex in employment or admissions decisions.
Sharpton, an outspoken advocate of affirmative action, stood on the steps of the Hatcher Graduate Library and compared the fight against MCRI in Michigan to the fight for civil rights in Mississippi during the 1960s.
“It is hypocritical to mourn Rosa Parks and then try to make sure her grandchildren can’t get an education,” he said.
In January, supporters of MCRI collected enough signatures from Michigan residents to place the issue on the November 2006 ballot. Public opinion polls in Michigan have indicated that MCRI has public support, meaning affirmative action could become illegal a year from now.
Opponents of the initiative criticize MCRI for a number of reasons, including the effects it will have and the methods used by the initiative’s proponents to gather petition signatures.
Among these criticisms is a claim that ending affirmative action will reverse the progress blacks have made since the Civil Rights movement, as well as research indicating that ending affirmative action would also hurt programs that favor women.
Those opposing MCRI also allege its petition signatures were gathered by providing false and misleading information to the public, including telling people that it was an initiative that favored affirmative action.
BAMN brought together college and high school supporters of affirmative action in a rally to voice all of these concerns.
Sharpton called on students to come together to stand against racism and defeat MCRI.
“Only those that fight will get what they deserve,” he said. “So you stand up and stay strong, and we will win this fight by any means necessary.”
BAMN hopes the rally will send a message to government officials in Lansing that young people in Michigan support affirmative action and that the policy is an essential part of promoting racial equality in general, said Ben Royal, a BAMN organizer and graduate student in the School of Education.
To demonstrate this support, BAMN organized buses to bring more than 1000 middle and high school students from Detroit public schools to the event.
“The fight to defeat the MCRI in Michigan right now is the front line,” he said, adding that ending affirmative action would be a step back toward segregation, Jim Crow and inequality between men and women.
BAMN organizers said they hope the rally will influence the decision of the Michigan Court of Appeals when it hears their case for keeping MCRI off the ballot.
Standing at the back of the rally was a small group of University students opposed to affirmative action and the methods BAMN uses to promote its agenda.
Affirmative action is outdated and ineffectual, said Matthew Gage, a LSA senior and events chair of College Republicans.
“It’s been around for 40 years, and you look at the numbers, it’s just not working,” Gage said.
In addition, affirmative action has increased tensions between the races, Gage said. A more effective and fair system would be one based on socioeconomic status instead of race, he added.
The anti-affirmative action protestors also alleged that BAMN uses violence