The language of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative is
unambiguous; its intent is unmistakable. The MCRI aims to eliminate
all discrimination by race, including all preference by race. The
words of the initiative, upon which we will vote in 2006, say that
clearly and simply:

“The state” (i.e. Michigan, and all its colleges and
universities) “shall not 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

That is the whole of its substance. There is nothing in this
sentence that is deceptive or misleading. It means exactly what it
says in very plain English.

Opponents of MCRI, including The Michigan Daily in its editorial
of Sept. 28, 2004 (Racial diversity at risk), contend that
the initiative will ban affirmative action. This is most certainly
not the case. “Affirmative action” is a phrase with
many meanings, to be sure, but its core meaning is the positive
effort to eliminate racial injustice. When “affirmative
action” was first introduced, by Presidents Kennedy and
Johnson in 1961 and 1965, and in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, its
clear and honorable purpose was to eradicate preference by race.
Affirmative steps to do this remain essential.

There is nothing in the MCRI that would interfere in any way
with such continuing efforts: to insure that examinations are free
of racial bias; to eliminate discrimination in housing and in
lending; to tear down old-boy networks; to oblige the fair posting
of jobs; to insure that tests for employment are relevant and to
forbid their use as covers for the surreptitious and invidious uses
of race — and so on and on. Affirmative action, in that
honorable spirit, will continue, as it certainly should.

MCRI, when adopted, will support these efforts; it will end race
preference, which affirmative action, rightly understood, never did
entail. The now widespread use of the term “affirmative
action” to designate policies of deliberate race preference
turns affirmative action on its head, using those words to identify
the very thing that affirmative action was conceived to overcome.
The proper content of “affirmative action” may be in
dispute — but “preference” by race or ethnicity
is a concept clearly and universally understood.

Why would one vote against an initiative that forbids all forms
of racial discrimination and preference? The only reason for doing
so, I presume, is the desire to see some forms of preference
maintained. So the issue between those who support MCRI and its
opponents may be crisply put: Do we, or do we not, wish to allow
our state to give preference by race?

For my part, I do not.

In my view, race preference is deeply damaging to the minorities
that are preferred. About that there will be some disagreement, no
doubt — but surely we all will agree that racial
discrimination is unjust, and is an evil with which our nation has
far too long been cursed. To give any persons more, or less, or to
treat persons better, or worse, because of the color of their skins
is an abomination. Doing it with honorable motives does not make it

Racial discrimination in every form is morally wrong. We all
know that. It is one of the fundamental civil rights of all
citizens to be treated equally under the laws. The MCRI will do no
more than incorporate this decent principle, in clear and
unambiguous language, into the constitution of our state. The
initiative is perfectly straightforward, wholly just and badly
needed. When it is adopted, in 2006, Michiganders will be truly
equal under the laws, and we will all be proud.


Cohen is a professor of philosophy at the Residential

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