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Murphy, Black Caucus Chair, Looks at Proposal 2

Term-limited lawmaker says law’s fate, effect are unclear

December 19, 2006 | By Charlene Crowell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

State of Michigan/Kevin W. Fowler
  State Representative Michael Murphy, who led the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus and is term-limited, worked with Governor Jennifer Granholm and One United Michigan to defend state affirmative action programs.

LANSINGAlthough term limits prevented outgoing State Representative Michael C. Murphy from running for the Michigan House on November 7, the Lansing Democrat had a sizeable stake in last month’s statewide election.

Representative Murphy, who is leaving his position as chair of the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus, the bicameral group of African American and Hispanic American legislators, worked to defeat state Proposal 2, a constitutional amendment banning state-based affirmative action. He did so, he said, because he views fairness and access to higher education as twin testaments to America’s promise. But Representative Murphy now must face the fact that Proposal 2 won handily and the state’s affirmative action programs will soon be history.

It is a defeat that weighs on the three-term state representative, whose interest in diversity goes beyond the fact that he is black: Mr. Murphy served for three years on this town’s city council, chaired the Michigan Municipal League’s Legislative and Urban Affairs Committee, and led a blue ribbon task force on revitalizing Lansing. During the recent campaign, the representative found much company for his concern about Proposal 2 and Michigan’s cities among white business leaders, and worked closely with One United Michigan, a large, statewide group of business and civic leaders that tried to defeat the measure.

Like Representative Murphy, the businesspeople who opposed Proposal 2 argued that eliminating affirmative action would make it more difficult for Michigan—and their own companies—to build the diverse workforce that the global economy demands. That, they argued, would not only hold back Michigan’s dismal economy, but also slow the revitalization of the state’s many failing cities and worsen its sprawling development patterns. They also said that approving the amendment would send a bad message to the global business community: Michigan no longer encourages diversity.

But neither that economic argument—nor America’s long history of discrimination against minorities and women—persuaded a majority of voters in Michigan to maintain state-sanctioned, race- or gender-based affirmative action program, even though the economic playing field remains tilted against those minorities in a state that is among America’s most segregated.

Now, with Proposal 2 taking effect on December 23, a legal scramble is underway. By Any Means Necessary, a pro-affirmative action organization, has filed suit to prevent the amendment’s installation. The University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State Universities have convinced a federal court to delay implementation until their next admission and financial aid decision-making cycle by arguing that installing the amendment now would throw that process into chaos and harm those already notified of their admission. And the NAACP and ACLU have filed a suit in the U.S. District Court in Detroit arguing that gender- and race-based preferences in university admissions should continue, in spite of Proposal 2. 

Meanwhile, buoyed by his decisive Michigan win, former University of California regent Ward Connerly, who spearheaded successful anti-affirmative action campaigns in California and Oregon before bringing his movement here, is planning to expand his activities. Mr. Connerly said he would launch initiatives in Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming in 2008. Jennifer Gratz, the Southgate native who worked with Mr. Connerly after losing her claim of reverse discrimination against the University of Michigan before the U.S. Supreme Court, said she will continue working on Mr. Connerly’s crusade.     

While Representative Murphy formulates his new career path, he still has plenty to do, including serving as pastor of the church he founded, St. Stephen’s Community Church, and chairing the Capital City African American Cultural Association.

Mr. Murphy sat down recently with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service to reflect on Proposal 2’s passage.

Great Lakes Bulletin News Service: According to unofficial county tallies on a statewide basis, Proposal 2 was defeated in only three Michigan Counties: Ingham, Washtenaw, and Wayne. What is your reaction?

Murphy: I was encouraged that these three counties were the ones who saw the merit of equal opportunity and fairness.  However, the other 80 counties that supported Proposal 2 were disappointing. 

Those three counties that opposed Proposal 2 were the ones who were able to organize the most voters in favor of what is fair in reality.  I was surprised to learn that so many of Michigan’s voters did not realize that, given our state’s history of discrimination and oppression, Proposal 2 is fair in neither theory nor practice.

By comparison, Governor Jennifer Granholm, a Proposal 2 opponent, carried a total of 55 counties. Why do you think that so many voters could support the governor and yet oppose affirmative action?

Murphy: Thankfully, Michigan’s voters are able to maintain enough distance between their stances on specific issues and the gubernatorial candidate they vote for. When you vote for a governor you are voting on more than one issue, ideally, and it seems that Governor Granholm was able to appeal to the majority of voters in Michigan with her broader plan for the future, despite her stance in opposing Proposal 2.

Is there anything that Governor Granholm can or should do to improve race relations in Michigan?

Murphy: One thing that Governor Granholm has already done to improve the education situation in the near future is to enact tougher requirements for graduation from high school.  Access to educational opportunities is closely linked to the range of curriculum a student takes and also individual academic performance. 

Anything that the state can do to encourage these things will help students of all races, sexes, and classes take full advantage of higher education. The passage of the new Merit Scholarship program is fair to all Michigan students and will benefit Michigan’s future.

Considering that many Black Caucus members are also residents of counties where Proposal 2 was strongly endorsed, will the caucus as a whole take any related actions?

Murphy: The Michigan Legislative Black Caucus was actively involved with One United Michigan in opposition to Proposal 2. We are the voices of African Americans in Michigan before the Michigan Legislature. The Michigan Legislative Black Caucus will continue to fight and advocate for fairness and opportunities.

Considering that public education is one of the areas where Proposal 2 bans preferences, what is the future for state-assisted scholarships?

Murphy: The process of awarding state-assisted scholarships is clearly one of the areas addressed by Proposal 2.  What is not clear is how this process is going to change.  

Much like the questions surrounding state contracting and public employment, the practicalities of Proposal 2 have yet to reveal themselves. Already the University of Michigan, Michigan State and Wayne State have filed for a delay of Proposal 2 because their admissions processes have already begun.  It is unclear what they should do in light of the new rules and changing the process would be unfair to students who have already been accepted. 

By the same token, it will be nearly impossible to alter how we award state-assisted scholarships in a way that is tidy, efficient, or fair. For this reason, the full impact of this controversial proposal will take years to surface, I think.

With affirmative action in place, according to the state Department of Management and Budget, black- and women-owned businesses combined received only two percent of all state contracting last year. How will Proposal 2’s ban against affirmative action in state contracting affect such businesses?

Murphy: If the goal of Proposal 2 is, in fact, justice and equality, which is how it is worded at least, then there is the potential for an increase in access across the board. We will see how it comes to pass.

In light of Michigan saying ‘No’ to affirmative action, do you expect other states to face similar initiatives? And what role if any, do you anticipate Ward Connerly and other Michigan anti-affirmative action advocates will have?

Murphy: There will almost certainly be another upstart of this anti-affirmative action movement. It is a significant force, regardless of whether it’s just or not. There are several appeals being examined currently and it’s likely that this dispute may be resolved on the federal level.

Why are race relations so divisive in Michigan?

Murphy: Race relations in Michigan are at a crossroad.  Race relations are powerful and have great potential.  Fear and ignorance are divisive.  When you are ignorant of the true impact of your vote and afraid that your child won’t get into his or her school of choice, then it’s easy to shift your view of what’s fair.   

Considering the number of persons and organizations that openly opposed Proposal 2, and given the widespread support the measure garnered, was there a disconnect between what supporters publicly said and what actually happened in the privacy of the voter booth? 

Murphy: Apparently this year’s voters were not content to let anyone else make up their minds for them. There was no way to predict one way or the other. That’s the risk and reward of democracy.

What is your advice to talented minority students, looking for a supportive post-secondary environment? Should they stay in Michigan or go elsewhere?

Rep. Murphy: If you are looking for a supportive post-secondary environment the most important thing you can do for yourself is make sure you are prepared  If you go to school in Michigan or anywhere else it doesn’t much matter. Your job is to do well in school. 

Take advantage of extra-curricular activities. When you’re closer to graduating, prepare well for your standardized tests and send out as many college applications as possible. 

Be tenacious and you will find that you can make your own opportunities.

Charlene Crowell is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s statewide policy director. Reach her at charlene@mlui.org.

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