Two men unfolded two very different stories on affirmative action last night.

Philosophy Prof. Carl Cohen, who began teaching at the University five decades ago, approached the podium outfitted in a cardigan sweater. There, Cohen sent audience members into the past, recalling an era when segregation ruled America’s schools – an era dealt a death knell in 1954 by former U.S. Supreme Court associate justice Thurgood Marshall in the case Brown v. Board of Education, which he argued as a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Cohen quoted a passage from Marshall’s historic brief submitted to the court: “Distinctions by race are so evil, so arbitrary and so invidious that a state bound to guarantee the equal protection of the laws must not invoke them in any public sphere.”

“Of course he was dead right,” Cohen said. “He was dead right in 1954. – And he’s dead right today.” The message, according to Cohen: Students should abolish affirmative action to promote a society based on equality.

Marvin Krislov, the University’s general counsel, couldn’t disagree more.

A member of the University’s legal team in the 2003 Supreme Court affirmative action cases, Krislov pleaded with audience members to look at the present and face reality: Despite efforts to sow the seeds of equality, poverty and segregation still linger in the country.

“Thurgood Marshall said in order to get beyond race we have to take account of race,” Krislov said, noting that Marshall recognized the legacy of slavery and discrimination would persist for generations.

“We must be cognizant of our history; we must be cognizant of where we are as people,” he added, saying affirmative action is imperative to foster a diverse society.

The next chapter of both contrasting stories hinges on the outcome of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, a ballot measure that is expected to appear on the statewide ballot in November 2006. MCRI will allow state voters to decide whether race and gender should be factors in determining admissions at public universities and employment decisions by the state.

As the University prides itself on its race-conscious admissions, MCRI will have major repercussions for the school if it is passed. LSA Student Government’s Multicultural Affairs Committee held a panel discussion last night to highlight the major arguments revolving around MCRI and the affirmative action debate. Cohen and Krislov were joined on the panel by American Culture Prof. Maria Cotera, Law School Prof. Richard Friedman and Howard Schwartz, president of the Michigan Association of Scholars.

For Cohen, affirmative action represents the essence of discrimination. Once affirmative action was meant to force institutions to treat all people equally, but now groups have hijacked the term to mean promoting diversity through preferential treatment of minorities, he said.

“They turned affirmative action on its head,” Cohen said. “Racial discrimination is wrong – you don’t need a philosophy professor to come and tell you.”

MCRI aims to eliminate this racial policy by basing its framework on the bedrock of federal law that has safeguarded racial equality – The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination in employment, public faculties and government.

“If you support the Civil Rights Act of 1964, then you should support the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative,” Cohen said.

But Krislov said banishing affirmative action at the University would not only be a detriment to the campus, but also to the nation. California already underscores this reality, he said.

Because California in 1996 passed Proposition 209 – a ballot measure, nearly identical to MCRI, that ended the use of race-conscious admissions in the state – public universities there have seen a dramatic decline in the diversity of their student bodies.

Proposition 209 extended to affect gender enrollment rates as well as aspects beyond admissions. Scholarships, recruitment efforts and financial aid geared toward minorities and women have been erased by proposition 209, he said.

Last year, only 218 black students attended the University of California Los Angeles and Berkeley, half of which have athletic scholarships – a major drop from 1995, when 469 black students attended both universities.

MCRI would do the same here, essentially uprooting all efforts meant to foster educational equality, Krislov said.

“These are terrible things that erode our confidence in the American dream,” he added.

American Culture Prof. Maria Cotera agreed with Krislov, refuting Cohen’s argument that affirmative action is inherently discriminatory. While MCRI supporters extol the fairness of the initiative, Cotera said the reality is that the world is far from fair.

Because minorities are continually underrepresented in government and leading business and tend to disproportionately suffer from lack of proper education, Cotera said, “To invoke fairness as a rationale for dismantling the very programs that have tried to (improve) the status of affairs is the height of hypocrisy and cynicism.”

Mike O’Brien, a Michigan Review editor and LSA sophomore, said the panel discussion was balanced because the speakers illustrated the different points of view in the affirmative action debate.

“Whatever the underlying tensions were (at the event), it was a really positive environment,” he added.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *