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The Race to Frame

April 12, 2006

The sights are set and the lines are drawn -- almost.

Proponents and opponents of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, or MCRI, are readying themselves for November, when voters will decide whether to vastly change affirmative action policy in the Great Lake State. If successful, the proposal would end the use of race and gender as a consideration in public college admissions, government hiring and state contracting. 

Similar measures have already passed in California and Washington State, but both sides are uncertain at this point how the situation will unfold in Michigan. Support for the proposal seems to be eroding sharply. A March Associated Press poll found that 47 percent of 600 likely voters surveyed opposed the initiative, while 44 percent favored it and 9 percent were undecided. In a survey nearly two years ago by EPIC-MRA, a research analysis firm, the proposal drew 64 percent support. A December survey by the same group showed 53 percent in favor and 32 percent opposed.

“Might Michigan voters be different from those in other states, in defeating it?” asks Carl Cohen, a professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan and longtime advocate of race-neutral admissions policies. “There is a very well financed campaign here to defeat the MCRI. Businesses find it very useful to have the universities do their ethnic dirty work. How successful that campaign will be I simply do not know.”

When the University of Michigan faced legal challenges to its law school and undergraduate admissions policies in the early 2000s, several Fortune 500 businesses supported the university. Cohen and many others expect that to happen again now that the affirmative action frame has shifted to include the entire state. And both the leading Republican candidate for governor, Dick DeVos, and the Democratic incumbent, Jennifer Granholm, have come out against the MCRI.

As the state once again becomes a hotbed for affirmative action, the University of Michigan itself can do far less to oppose the civil rights initiative than it could in supporting its admissions policies. State law prohibits public universities from engaging in political campaigns, which includes supporting or rebutting ballot initiatives. But on their own time, university employees can -- and frequently do -- engage in political activities, so long as they don’t use university resources or represent themselves as speaking on behalf of a university.

Organizations that support affirmative action, like One United Michigan and By Any Means Necessary, are currently preparing multiple approaches to getting the public to vote against the proposal. One United Michigan is focusing on a “Don’t Be Fooled” campaign, under the assumption that many voters will think that they are voting in favor of sound civil rights policy when the organization believes that the proposal will “immediately eliminate jobs for women and minorities.”  

Donna Stern, a national organizer with By Any Means Necessary, says that voters in Michigan have long tended to be progressive and labor-friendly. “Jesse Jackson won the primary here in the 1980s,” she says. “That’s even with an 82 percent white population.

Stern says she thinks that BAMN and others will be able to help defeat the initiative, but not by depending on that historical context alone. Instead, the group plans to focus on what Stern calls “fraud” in getting the initiative on the ballot. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission, she says, is concerned about the ways that signatures were gathered to get MCRI to the voting booth. She says that many people, including large numbers of blacks, were told that the petitions they were signing were in support of affirmative action.

While an appeals court found the petitions to be valid and ruled last fall that the proposal could be placed on the ballot -- a ruling the Michigan Supreme Court affirmed in March -- Stern says that her group will file a motion for reconsideration with the Michigan Supreme Court in the coming weeks, with support from the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. “Many progressive voters were fooled, says Stern, and she doesn’t expect them to be fooled once again in November. “[MCRI proponents] have tried to spin the language and redefine affirmative action. I think it’s completely cynical on their part.”  

Cohen says the ballot measure would not end affirmative action. “It will end preference,” he says. “Preference is the issue. The words ‘affirmative action’ do not appear in the initiative at all.

“Preference is both wrong, and damaging,” adds Cohen. “It is morally wrong because it favors those of a given skin color or national origin and disfavors other skin colors and origins…It puts all minority accomplishments under a cloud; it reinforces the lies, the stereotypes of racial inferiority. It is a disaster for fine minority scholars and students -- of whom there are very many -- who need no charity to be admitted, or to succeed.”

Students throughout the state are increasingly expressing their views on the issue.

According to an online poll conducted by the University of Michigan student newspaper in January, more than three-quarters of respondents said they supported the proposed change to the state Constitution prohibiting the use of race and gender special preferences in university admissions, government employment and state contracting.

Still, not all students feel that way. “[W]e have to keep in mind that the MCRI doesn’t eliminate preference, it will simply increase discrimination by permanently embedding the institutional and systemic white supremacy that has been built into our public sectors, specifically public education,” says Erik Green, a senior at Michigan State University. “In California, the measure received very little education and barely passed by a 55 percent majority. Here in Michigan, there's no reason for us to be surprised by some of the far-reaching effects the MCRI had in California, so I think it’ll be a lot easier for us to show voters how this is bad for the state.”

Some supporters of affirmative action, like Etienne Fields, a Lansing Community College student, say that if the MCRI passes, it would have a “big difference” in the number of minorities accepted into colleges and universities.

But Cohen maintains that the ballot measure would affect enrollments only at the most select institutions, where he says minority admissions are artificially inflated. “There is widespread support for affirmative action, as it was originally designed to eliminate preference, to keep things truly fair and non-discriminatory,” he says. “We all want affirmative action in that sense.”

 

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