Michigan sends a message on racial preferences to U.S. Supreme Court

By Terence J. Pell

Detroit News, November 16, 2006

Voters in Michigan have voted to ban all racial preferences in state programs, including admissions to elite University of Michigan. In a single stroke, the citizens of Michigan repudiated the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 decision approving of the limited use of racial preferences to achieve a diverse classroom. Though the Supreme Court suggested that states might use racial preferences for any number of good purposes, the voters in Michigan simply said “No thanks!”

As a result, individuals in Michigan will be judged by the same standards regardless of race in all government programs, including hiring, contracting and education. Assuming the referendum survives several expected court challenges, Michigan will join California, Washington and Florida in ending the use of racial preferences by citizen initiative rather than court order.

The most striking thing about the Michigan initiative may be that it succeeded at all. The odds against it were overwhelming. Start with the fact that the entire state political structure — including big corporations, professional educators, the newspapers and nearly every politician — were uniformly opposed to Proposal 2.

Add to that the fact that sponsors of Proposal 2 had no money and little organization with which to counter an endless barrage of misleading and racially divisive attacks.

As a result, some will dismiss the Michigan outcome as a fluke. But a closer look suggests the political dynamic at play in Michigan could easily spread to other states.

Despite their considerable advantages in institutional support, money and political clout, supporters of racial engineering had surprisingly little to say in defense of the practice. And what they did say ended up insulting voters and reminding them all over again of the naked racial politics that race-based preferences represents.

Instead of forthrightly defending racial preferences, supporters tried to change the subject. They claimed that Proposal 2 would mean the end of any number of programs for women, from breast feeding training for poor mothers to women’s sports programs.

The argument was doomed from the start if only because initiative organizer Ward Connerly had the good sense to choose as his Executive Director Jennifer Gratz, the high school student who successfully challenged the University of Michigan’s race-based admissions policies before the U.S. Supreme Court. She was a clear reminder to voters that this was a debate about the kid next door getting quotaed out of the hometown university, not some contrived concern about women’s breast feeding programs.

In the end, Michigan voters were not fooled. And it’s not likely voters in any other state would be fooled either. The time when racial preferences might have made sense has come and gone. The fact that Michigan voters saw through the misleading arguments and vitriolic tactics advanced in favor of racial preferences suggests the time may be closer than most think to end this practice once and for all.

The vote sends a clear signal of voter sentiment to the Supreme Court, which just now is considering whether to trim back its 2003 diversity ruling in two cases that will be argued later this year. Having deviated from the Constitution’s clear prohibition against racial classifications of any kind, the court now may be encouraged by the Michigan vote to trim back its expansive 2003 ruling and restore the principle that individuals must be treated as individuals regardless of race.