PLYMOUTH, MICHIGAN — It is striking that in her response to the proposed Michigan ballot initiative to prohibit racial discrimination and preferences in public institutions, Betsy DeVos, chairperson of the Michigan Republican party, writing in the Grand Rapids Press, recently identified as her chief concern not the constitutional principle of equality involved, but rather practical campaign considerations.
She claims that such an initiative has the potential for resulting in a “racially divisive campaign,” accompanied by “vitriolic public discourse” and “irresponsible rhetoric.” While I share her dislike of this type of behavior, I loathe rewarding it even more — which is surely what we do when tactics such as these influence the position of a political party, even to the point of trumping principle.
The Supreme Court’s recent University of Michigan decision was neither wise nor just. It left the door open to replace the race-based, undergraduate point system with its fraternal twin, the law-school admission process — a process that uses the functional equivalent of a quota, but calls it a “critical mass.”
As the polls indicate, the majority of Americans care deeply about fairness and equality, and they are not fooled by terminology. They know that when the odds of a minority applicant being accepted are 234 times that of other applicants with the same college grades and test scores, different admissions criteria are being applied based on race, and that race is not a factor, but the factor. It is these policies, not the associated discourse, that create the divisiveness that Ms. DeVos so dreads.
Ms. DeVos “cling[s] to the idea,” as we all do, that “race is irrelevant and should be irrelevant,” but that idea will never be achievable as long as policies promote preferences on the basis of race.
She has an idea — that “we all see each other as Michiganians and forget about race,” but that is exactly what we have asked for, both in the lawsuits against the U of M and now in the ballot initiative.
She has a “radical idea,” that “just for a change,” both political parties “address the root cause rather than the symptom.” But race preferences don’t fix problems; they hide them! They allow society to take the lazy route, pat itself on the back, and avoid addressing the root causes.
She asks, “What good will be served by a ballot initiative?” Michiganians will have an opportunity to reaffirm their commitment to equal protection under the law. They will insure that equal opportunity statements do not offer empty promises, but hope to all that they will be considered on the basis of personal attributes rather than as a member of a racial or ethnic group.
Thirty years ago as a young woman, I entered a sexist work environment, empowered and emboldened by the promise of the equal-opportunity statement, and encouraged by the strides being made — only to find myself 25 years later discriminated against on yet another basis — this time race. That is not progress! Voters are tired of waiting, tired of wasting time, and they are unwilling to turn back the clock.
We will never become a truly inclusive society if we continue to discriminate against or disenfranchise one group in the process of including another. Equal protection means the same thing for everyone or it means nothing for anyone. We will not wait, as Sandra Day O’Connor suggests, another 25 years for the principle of equal treatment to become a reality in Michigan.
This is an issue that transcends party affiliation, rhetoric, and politics. Michiganians recognize that our integrity and identity as a people demand equal protection under the law, and that our future depends on it. My gut tells me that they will indeed choose to insure that future by turning out to vote.
Contrary to what Ms. DeVos suggests, I do not think that individuals concerned enough to become involved in the endless work of a ballot initiative are spending much time on their backsides. Many of them are the same people who daily stand against discrimination, who personally support scholarship programs as she does, and who, unlike her own party, supported her 2000 school-voucher initiative.
So, rather than accepting her challenge of getting off our backsides, I’d like to throw down this challenge to her: Stand on principle, and demonstrate, that even in disagreement, American citizens can practice their right to discourse and participation in the affairs of the state, in an informed and thoughtful manner, based on the Constitution, and with respect and civility towards all.
— Barbara Grutter, a resident of Plymouth, Mich., was the lead plaintiff in Grutter v. Bollinger. This piece originally ran in the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press in response to a commentary by Michigan GOP chair Betsy DeVos.