Rich Lowry

Discrimination by race has never had such respectable defenders as it is garnering in Michigan right now. It is backed by the Democratic governor and her Republican opponent. By the ACLU and the Michigan Catholic Conference. By General Motors and Ford.

They are all rallying against the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, a ballot measure that would eliminate racial preferences for "public employment, education or contracting purposes." That includes, most controversially, college admissions. Racial preferences in admissions have now achieved a status close to free speech and tenure as operating principles of American higher education.

On their behalf in Michigan, the educational, political, business and civil-rights establishments have all been mobilized. They are spending millions of dollars and throwing every smear imaginable at the underfunded, underendorsed MCRI, whose only source of strength is the common-sense belief that discrimination is wrong and no remedy to lagging minority academic performance.

Michigan became the nation's battleground for the fight over preferences when the Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that the University of Michigan couldn't use explicit racial quotas, but could use race as an "individualized consideration." In other words, "Please, discriminate more subtly." A plaintiff in that case, a white woman rejected by the University of Michigan, Jennifer Gratz, teamed up with anti-preferences crusader Ward Connerly to take the question to the voters.

The scare campaign against MCRI mirrors the onslaught against California's Proposition 209, which passed in 1996. Its elimination of preferences was supposed to be the worst blow against the educational interests of minorities since Plessy v. Ferguson enshrined the principle of separate, but equal. Instead, Prop. 209 has been a success. The top universities in the University of California system -- Berkeley and UCLA -- saw declines in minority enrollment. But admissions of minorities in other parts of the UC system, schools like UC Santa Cruz and UC Riverside, increased. Overall, minority admissions stayed almost the same (down 1 percent from 1995 to 2000).

Rich Lowry

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years .
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