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Michigan Affirmative Action Ban Renews Debate


Michigan voters may have ended affirmative action programs in the state but they have not ended the debate. The predicted impact of the voter-approved Proposal 2, along with two upcoming U.S. Supreme Court cases on race-conscious school assignments, continues to ignite arguments for and against affirmative action.

An expert panel convened in Washington on Thursday was the site of just one of the recent debates. Sponsored by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism, it was moderated by Newsweek contributing editor and columnist Ellis Cose, the author of Killing Affirmative Action: Would ending it really result in a better, more perfect Union?

According to Cose, California’s anti-affirmative action legislation, Proposition 209, resulted in a huge drop in minority enrollment in the state’s leading colleges and universities. Minority contractors also saw their business decrease.

“Proposal 2 will have a greater impact on the University of Michigan and other state universities. The size and demographics of Michigan are on a much larger scale than California,” Cose said. Michigan is 80 percent White and 14 percent Black. If minorities, who represent a majority in California, have been negatively affected by an affirmative action ban, the prohibition doesn’t bode well for minorities in predominantly White states like Michigan.

“The court challenges will come and go away, and schools will have to wrestle with the fact that affirmative action measures are there to stay,” said Cose. “The question is how far will society and government go to promote diversity in education?”

Studies indicate a continued need for affirmative action programs, said Dennis D. Parker, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Program. A Black woman with a college degree earns only $800 more than a White man with a high school diploma, he said, and a Black man with no criminal record has a more difficult time finding a job than a White man who has a criminal record.

“I agree affirmative action is not a panacea for American society, but you cannot put on blinders to reality,” Parker said.

Barbara Grutter, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court’s 2003 Grutter v Bollinger case, said voters in Michigan reaffirmed “equal justice under the law and were not anti-affirmative action.”

Grutter is president of Toward a Fair Michigan, an anti-affirmative action organization, which is convening a workshop on Dec. 8 to discuss equality and fairness.

“We want to widen the circle and engage people in conversation,” she said. “Who’s afraid of open debate? Everybody.”

William B. Allen, chairman of Toward a Fair Michigan, challenged Dr. Mary Sue Coleman, president of UM, to an open debate after she announced a court challenge to Proposal 2.

“Remember, the constitutional amendment does not ‘ban affirmative action.’ It ‘bans affirmative action programs that give preferences on the basis of race, gender, color, ethnicity or national origin,’” Allen said.

“Diversity remains to be accomplished,” he added. “Is affirmative action the response? No.”

But Ellen Buchman, the director of field operations for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said there needs to be enforcement of affirmative action programs at the highest level. She called diversity a crucial factor in the U.S. effort to compete in a global economy.

“Proposal 2 was a rematch of Grutter v Bollinger,” Buchman said. “But we need stronger forces to level the playing field.”

The upcoming Supreme Court cases on school desegregation in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., “is more about race than affirmative action,” said Parker, adding that it is unlikely the debate on either is going to go away soon.

By Shilpa Banerji

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