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Michigan Faces Affirmative Action Rollback Vote

Businessmen warn that Proposal 2 would hurt everyone

October 18, 2006 | By Charlene Crowell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Students from many different ethnic backgrounds recently demonstrated against Proposal 2 at Michigan State University.

While Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm and Republican gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos slug it out over their competing job-building strategies, business leaders in both parties say that a proposed state constitutional amendment that is also on the Nov. 7 ballot would, if passed, undermine efforts to get Michigan’s fallen economy back on its feet.

Although the amendment is named the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, it would not do what might be expected of a proposal bearing that title. Instead of, say, expanding access for ethnic minorities or women to better educations or jobs, MCRI (Proposal 2 on the ballot) would instead roll back many state affirmative action programs.

The push for Proposal 2 comes as Michigan reels from the loss in recent years of about 200,000 manufacturing jobs and the exodus of tens of thousands of young people to states where new, knowledge-economy companies are located. Those states are drawing such companies because the firms and their workers prefer cities that boast lively multicultural scenes, good public transportation, and legions of well-educated, gender- and racially diverse professionals, which affirmative action programs foster.

Proposal 2 has alarmed many Michigan businesspeople, who like affirmative action programs because they help their companies hire a more diverse workforce that can then assist marketing efforts aimed at minorities. Others point out that such programs generate badly needed new economic activity and add that, while most of the debate about MCRI centers on race, affirmative action’s overall effect has been to widen opportunities for many groups, particularly women.

The chairman of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, attacked Proposal 2 in no uncertain terms in a recent letter to his fellow business executives.  

“The so-called Michigan Civil Rights Initiative is bad for business, bad for our region and bad for our state,” wrote Mr. Archer, an African-American Democrat.

Echoing the arguments of Paul Hillegonds, a white Republican who is helping to lead a statewide business coalition intent on defeating Proposal 2, he added: “If it passes, we are announcing to the world that women and minorities will not be given an equal opportunity to succeed in business in our state. This is the wrong message to send at a time when we are trying to attract new businesses and develop a talented, multicultural workforce ready to meet the demands of the 21st century economy.”

Proposal 2 is one of the few things Governor Granholm and Mr. DeVos completely agree on: The both strongly oppose it.

Way Out West
Leading the drive against affirmative action is a coalition with the same name as the ballot proposal—the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative. The group formed after the U.S. Supreme Court, upon hearing arguments that included petitions from many Fortune 500 companies favoring affirmative action, upheld, with minor modifications, two such programs for ethnic minorities seeking admission to the University of Michigan.

From the beginning, the MCRI group has had the highly visible and vocal support of former University of California Regent Ward Connerly. Mr. Connerly, an African American, led similar, successful efforts in California, in 1996, and in Washington State, in 1998. Proposal 2’s language is almost identical to the language Mr. Connerly’s groups used in those two states. It would eliminate any preference practices in public education, public employment, and contracting that are based on race, gender, ethnicity, skin color, or national origin.

The California proposal won by a two-to-one margin; a Los Angeles Times exit poll found the measure’s greatest support among Republicans (80 percent), conservatives (77 percent), those earnings $60,000 to $74,999 annually (65 percent), and males (61 percent). Strongest opposition came from Latinos (76 percent), African Americans (74 percent), Asians (61 percent), Democrats (69 percent), and liberals (73 percent).

The 58 percent vote against affirmative action in Washington State was less decisive. The exit poll there, conducted by the American Civil Rights Coalition, found greatest support among Republicans (80 percent), conservatives (78 percent), and independents (62 percent).

The Damage Done
Studies confirm that the rollback of affirmative action programs in California has changed the makeup of the student body of that state’s largest university system and has set back many women- and minority-owned businesses.

In 1995, African-American freshmen represented 7.4 percent of their University of California at Los Angeles class. Nine years later, after California’s affirmative action rollback, the percentage dropped to 2.8 percent.  Meanwhile, a study conducted by the Berkeley-based Discrimination Research Center found that, since the rollback, only one-third of the businesses owned by women and minorities in 1996 have survived.

Another study, Losing Ground,published in October 2003 by the San Francisco-based Chinese for Affirmative Action, found that, after the rollback (known as Proposition 209) passed, contract dollars awarded to businesses owned by minorities and women fell by 22 percent, representing a loss of at least $94.5 million per year for those groups.

According to the report, “Even in the first year after Proposition 209 took effect, these firms were receiving less opportunities to bid, and contract compliance officers reported resistance by prime contractors to conduct outreach.”

Some observers in Michigan fear the same thing could happen here, and might well affect women more than ethnic minorities. According to Susan Kaufman, associate director of the University of Michigan’s Center for the Education of Women, “There is evidence from California that Proposition 209 eroded access to job services, education, job training, and other opportunities for women, and evidence to suggest that passage of MCRI in Michigan would result in a similar pattern.”

Ironically, in 2006, Mr. Connerly has two women among his top Michigan supporters—Jennifer Gratz and Barbara Grutter, who brought the two affirmative action cases against U of M all the way to the Supreme Court.

More than Race
Proposal 2’s history has been stormy since the beginning. It survived repeated attempts to keep it off the ballot, staged by groups who complained that the initiative was not only misleadingly named, but also employed petition circulators who used fraudulent tactics to secure signatures. Those complaints spurred the Michigan Civil Rights Commission to hold statewide field hearings; hundreds of pages of testimony published by the commission after its hearings indicate that more than 500 people gave sworn testimony that they were misled by circulators about the initiative’s meaning.

MCRI’s string of court victories in overcoming those and other objections in its drive for ballot access has apparently made its supporters confident that it will pass. At an October 5 forum convened in Lansing by Inforum, a professional women’s alliance, Ms. Gratz, MCRI’s executive director, repeatedly prefaced her remarks with “when the measure passes.” She also alleged that “the media has tried to sensationalize” the ballot question.

“If government is ever to get beyond race,” Ms. Gratz said at one point, “it has to stop throwing it in our face.” 

But Grand Rapids attorney Bruce Courtade, who debated Ms. Gratz at the forum, rejected her argument.

“This is not a black versus white issue,” Mr. Courtade told the Lansing audience. “It’s actually gray and a lot of green.”

Maxine Berman, a former state legislator and active member of One United Michigan—an anti-Proposal 2 group led by Mr. Hillegonds, Detroit Branch NAACP Director Heaster Wheeler, and Debbie Dingell, wife of Michigan Congressman John Dingell—also questioned Ms. Gratz’ constant emphasis on race.

“Affirmative action throws nothing in anyone's face” Ms. Berman, a southeast Michigan resident and director of special projects for the governor’s office, said. “All it does is ask that every qualified person be considered. That's all our government does. Jennifer Gratz and her California friends know that if they tell the truth, they lose. Only the race card will work for them. They, not the media, are the ones sensationalizing the issue.”

John Boles, vice-president of the Mid-Michigan Black Business Association and a Lansing area real estate broker, concurred, pointing out that affirmative action programs help many kinds of people.

“Proposal 2 is grossly misunderstood as to who benefits and the purpose that it serves,” said Boles in a recent interview. “Affirmative action programs recognize disparities that exist. All is not equal.”

Small Numbers, Big Uproar
Michigan Department of Management and Budget statistics bolster Mr. Boles’ assertion. The department’s data shows that the group many people assume benefits most from affirmative action—African Americans—received just 4.4 percent of the state’s minority contract total in 2005, even though they comprise 14 percent of the state’s population and are the state’s largest ethnic minority.

Other minorities have managed to take much better advantage of the programs. While the state is only 3.3 percent Hispanic, for example, those businesses received 39.6 percent of 2005’s minority contracts. Women-owned businesses received 30 percent; Asian-Americans, who make up 2 percent of Michigan, received 11 percent; and Native Americans, who are less than one percent of the state population, gained 7.7 percent.

In fact, the only minority group that fared as badly as African-Americans in 2005 state contracting was handicapped-owned businesses, which received 4 percent of the total.

Yet for all the gains that women-owned and some ethnic-owned businesses have made in recent years, affirmative action programs accounted for only 2 percent of the state’s overall contracting, or $143,844,978 out of $7.9 billion.

The decision that Michigan voters will soon make is attracting national attention. In his nationally syndicated weekly column, National Urban League president Marc H. Morial recently noted, “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 over the nation that affirmative action is an important way to level the playing field in U.S. society.”  

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is also stumping against Proposal 2.

“It is important to remember that affirmative action can't be examined in just black and white racial terms,” Mayor. Kilpatrick told the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. “Affirmative action is here to correct institutional discrimination for a multitude of reasons. White women have to seriously consider the issue of equal access in employment, higher education, and advancement in business and government.”

“Proposal 2 flies in the face of fairness and truth. It would set our state back decades for women and minorities,” he concluded.

Charlene Crowell is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s state policy director. Reach her at charlene@mlui.org. To read the amici briefs filed by a number of Fortune 500 companies who supported the University of Michigan in its Supreme Court cases concerning affirmative action in college admissions, click here
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