The battle for affirmative action in Michigan

Affirmative action is one of the best ways to address past and current discrimination based on race and gender. The Nov. 7 vote for Michigan ballot Proposal 2, which eliminates local and state government affirmative action programs, is a big setback for all concerned about civil rights and democracy. The measure was approved 58-42 percent.

It bans such things as considering race and gender among other factors in admission to public colleges and universities; state and local government outreach programs to open the doors for women in fields like science and engineering; and programs that work to insure women and minorities are treated fairly in applying for home loans, receiving equal pay at work, and the like.

Ward Connerly, the California millionaire who led the 1996 fight to defeat affirmative action in his home state, set his sights on Michigan. He hired a professional petition gathering company to collect the signatures necessary to place the “Michigan Civil Rights Initiative” on the state’s ballot. This name was chosen to purposely confuse voters. To save affirmative action voters had to vote “no” on ballot Proposal 2. Adding to the confusion, Connerly, who is African American, claimed the proposal would eliminate discrimination. He portrayed affirmative action as opposed to civil rights and fairness, a destroyer of the rights of men, white men in particular. With Michigan’s economy faltering, these claims played on people’s insecurity.

Joining Connerly’s attack on affirmative action was Jennifer Gratz, a white 1995 University of Michigan applicant who was denied admission. Arguing that 85 applicants from minority backgrounds with lower test scores than hers were admitted, Gratz charged “reverse discrimination” in a lawsuit that eventually was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court. The fact that the university also admitted 1,400 white students with lower scores than hers in the same year did not seem to bother Gratz.

Like all highly competitive universities, the University of Michigan considers an array of factors for admittance, including things like geography, extracurricular activities and whether a family member attended the school. Now, in yet another setback for African Americans, Latinos and other minorities who are already under-represented in higher education, race cannot be among the factors considered.

Contrary to Connerly’s and Gratz’s pronouncements, affirmative action is inherently democratic for it works to create a fair and just society that everyone shares in, not just a fortunate few. It is a necessary step to give all people a chance to be represented at the table, not just those who are wealthy, white and male. It enlarges the pie and sets additional chairs at the table. Thus it is not surprising that Michigan’s labor movement decided early on to play an important role in the fight to keep it.

Part of the backdrop to the Nov. 7 defeat of affirmative action was the decades-long use of racism by the Republican far right and the effect this poisoning of the atmosphere had on people’s consciousness. From Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, Republicans have used racism to build majorities in Congress. In Michigan, the Republican far right attacked opponents as being “soft” on immigration and crime — code language aimed at inflaming racism. Government assistance to those in need became “government handouts” to people who “take advantage of the system.” The far right shifted the blame for poverty, unemployment and failing schools to the victims and their communities. In George Bush’s “ownership society” you decide your future; the government owes you nothing — as people in New Orleans have learned all too painfully.

The right-wing racist barrage has also included attacks on public education and use of legal challenges to roll back the 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education school integration ruling.

In his book “Shame of a Nation,” Jonathan Kozol describes the “national horror” of our segregated communities and the apartheid-like education children there receive: more than 2 million Black and Latino students attend schools that are 99 to 100 percent minority. He notes that from 1954 until the late ’80s, school integration increased and the racist “achievement gap” narrowed. Since then our schools have become more segregated, more under-funded and, not surprisingly, the achievement gap has stagnated and even increased. What produced an outcry in 1954 is too often accepted with little protest today, he says.

With this in mind, the hundreds of religious, women’s, youth, business and social organizations that came together in the “One United Michigan” coalition to try to save affirmative action was an extremely significant development. Labor played a leading role, and Teamsters President James Hoffa was a co-chair of the coalition.

Of the state’s five ballot questions, Proposal 2 was the only one the Michigan AFL-CIO took a stand on, coming out strongly to save affirmative action. This push by labor was reflected in a poll showing that, despite the confusion deliberately propagated by the proposal’s well-financed racist promoters, 50 percent of union members voted on the side of equality — one of the highest of all groups. Many labor phone banks asked voters to defeat Republican candidates and to save affirmative action by “voting ‘no’ on 2.” Labor showed that even during hard economic times, many white workers can be won to support equality.

Election Day exit polls cannot be verified but they did show only 21 percent of Republicans voting to keep affirmative action while 64 percent of Democrats voted to do so. The polls also showed that big problems remain to be overcome. White males voted in the majority against affirmative action as did 30 percent of non-white males — indicating that, if the polls were correct, male supremacy was also a factor affecting votes. But while women voted better than men, almost half voted against something that was to their benefit. White women voting against affirmative action suggests that racism was a significant factor determining their vote.

The Michigan battle to save affirmative action took place under unfavorable conditions, and the years of Republican racism and divisiveness proved difficult to overcome.

However, the state Republican Party, which has relied on its use of racism, lost control of the state House and saw its margin of control narrow in the state Senate.

With last November’s elections, the far right, while still in control of the courts and still a big presence in Congress, has taken a big hit. In addition to losing at the ballot box, they have also suffered ideological defeats in the battle over what the role of government should be.

Michigan’s public universities have said they will continue to work for diversity. But in California, incoming classes at state universities saw big drops in minority enrollment after the defeat of affirmative action there. What some are saying is we a need a new civil rights revolution that, like the movement in the 1950s and ’60s, changes mass thought patterns.

Connerly now plans to take his anti-affirmative-action campaign to several other states. His association with some of the country’s leading far-right, anti-labor, anti-democratic figures — from Rupert Murdoch, head of the Fox News empire, to Joseph Coors, the late Colorado beer baron — shows his campaign has little to do with fairness and democracy.

Segregated schools and workplaces that do not reflect race and gender equality at all levels are not compatible with democracy, and hold back all of society.

The time is both ripe — and past due — to mount a new movement for civil rights and equality.

John Rummel (jrummel @ cpusa.org) is Michigan state organizer of the Communist Party USA.