By: Marc H. Morial
President and CEO,
National Urban League
In 1996, 55 percent of California voters approved Proposition 209, a
ballot initiative that bars the use of affirmative action by
state-funded educational and government institutions.
Its champion was Ward Connerly, an African-American businessman and
former member of the University of California's Board of Regents who
heads the American Civil Rights Institute. In 1998, he undertook a
similar initiative, I-200, in Washington and emerged victorious with 59
percent of the vote.
Now, in 2006, he has taken his crusade against the use of affirmative
action in higher education, public contracting and hiring programs to
Michigan, a state that is no stranger to such controversy.
It was in Michigan where Jennifer Gratz, an honor roll high school
graduate with a 3.8 grade point average, was denied admission to the
University of Michigan in 1995.
Two years later, she filed suit, charging that the university's point
system that gave higher points to some applicants based on race unfairly
She took her fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 2003
found the university's points system for undergraduate admissions
unconstitutional. That process gave some applicants extra points for
being a member of an underrepresented minority group. The high court,
however, did not prohibit the school from using race in admissions
decisions. In a separate decision, it let stand the school's system for
Gratz eventually graduated from the University of Michigan in Dearborn
with a degree in mathematics and ended up with a job in the software
industry until she decided to become the executive director of the
Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, with Connerly as her mentor.
Together Gratz and Connerly are attempting to persuade Michigan voters
to approve having a ban on affirmative action written into the state's
constitution. It is all in the name of "fairness" so say its supporters.
"This is not about me," Gratz has been quoted as saying. "Michigan has
had this debate for almost 10 years now. The people of Michigan believe
But, the U.S. Supreme Court decided this debate in 2003 with its duo of
historic decisions. Unlike California's Proposition 209, MCRI aims to
overturn what the highest court in the nation already decided.
Proposition 209 was hardly fair. A year after it took effect, admissions
of African Americans to University of California schools took a 12
percent hit from 1997 to 1998, while overall admissions rose 5 percent.
Enrollment fell nearly 20 percent. In 1995, blacks made up 4.41 percent
of the freshman class throughout the UC system, compared to 3.47 percent
Where the effects are most evident is at the system's top-tier schools.
At UC-Berkeley, admissions of black students fell 56 percent from 1997
to 1998. Enrollment took a similar dive. In 1997, 7.84 percent of the
freshman class was black. In 2005, African Americans made up 3.44
A similar decline in black students at UCLA prompted university
officials to adopt a "holistic" approach to admissions that allows
decision-makers to consider all aspects of applicants. This came after
the school discovered that only 96 blacks – or two percent of the
freshman class– were likely to enroll for the 2006 academic year.
Back in 1961, 134,000 black students attended predominantly white
colleges and universities around the country. Since then, there has been
more than a ten-fold increase. You can't tell me that increased
diversity hasn't had a positive effect on our nation – socially,
politically and economically.
Just imagine what the absence of affirmative action would have meant for
UCLA alum and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the city's first
Latino mayor in 133 years.
At the National Urban League's 2006 conference, Villaraigosa cited
affirmative action as a factor in his success. "Some people would say I
snuck into UCLA through the back door. But one thing's for sure: I got
out through the front door," he said in late July in Atlanta.
It is obvious that Proposition 201 has had negative effects that will
continue to rear their ugly heads further down the line. And that's what
supporters of such proposals as the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative
should keep in mind.
As for its fate in November, that is unclear. A recent poll by the
Detroit News concluded that 48 percent of Michigan voters supported the
ban, with 37 percent against it and 15 percent undecided. But one by the
Detroit Free Press in early September painted a brighter picture for the
opposition: 41 percent were supporters, with 43 percent opposing it and
16 percent undecided. Despite these differing results, there is one
thing for certain: MCRI's support of two years ago – sometimes up to 40
percentage points ahead of its opposition — has eroded.
Connerly's own American Civil Rights Institute has also come under fire
for possible tax law violations. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., called upon
the IRS to examine Connerly's $1 million in salary and expenses from his
This is not a debate about the value of affirmative action in higher
education and elsewhere in American society. That has been settled to
some extent. Corporate America, the military and civil society
organizations have promoted the value of diversity in keeping the nation
competitive on the world stage.
It's about Ward Connerly's assault on a system that has built the
minority middle class in this country. He's pandering to the fears of a
state savaged by layoffs and economic uncertainty.A win in Michigan may
fuel similar efforts across the nation. But, a loss could definitely
deal a death blow to the entire Connerly empire. It'll send a sign all
over the nation that affirmative action is an important way to level the
playing field in U.S. society.
It is time to put Connerly's efforts to subvert a very important
institution into retirement along with him. It's time to give him a pay
cut so he can spend more time on his golf game.
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