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).
The redistribution of minorities within the UC system has had the benefit of increasing minority graduation rates. According to a law-review article by Eryn Hadley of the Pacific Legal Foundation, the black graduation rate at Berkley for the freshman class entering in 1998 after the passage of Prop. 209 increased 6.5 percent. UCLA law professor Richard Sander notes that black students at UC San Diego had a four-year graduation rate of 26 percent in 1995-1996 and a 52 percent rate in 1999-2001. These figures are so important because gaining admittance to a college doesn't do someone much good unless he gets a degree.
So MCRI doesn't pose a threat to the interests of minorities. In a naked electoral ploy, opponents are saying that it will harm women. Nation-wide, women make up 57 percent of college students. Rather than be threatened by measures like MCRI, they are much more likely to become the victims of preferences down the line, when administrators decide to try to get their gender balances back in whack. Nor does MCRI put at risk screening for breast and cervical cancer, a truly despicable charge made by opponents. Such programs have continued unmolested in California.
Supporters of preferences want to believe that there is a magical solution to the educational deficits of minorities -- just let them into top schools, whether they are prepared or not. This simply papers over the problem, even if it allows the people who run and support the University of Michigan to feel good about their commitment to diversity. A serious effort to address minority achievement would begin with attempts to reduce the out-of-wedlock child-bearing that puts kids of single moms at an immediate disadvantage, and to reform the K-12 education that is such a disaster in urban areas.
This is arduous, long-term work. But if all the groups that are working so vigorously to kill MCRI would put their minds to it instead, maybe eventually they wouldn't feel so compelled to support racial discrimination.