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Precedents and Preferences
What California's Prop 209 foretells for Michigan.


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Henry Payne

In a replay of California’s Proposition 209 ten years ago, Michigan voters will vote this November on ballot Proposal 2, which seeks to eliminate racial preferences for “public employment, education or contracting purposes.” The proposal, drafted by Prop 209 author Ward Connerly, has encountered uniform opposition from Michigan’s establishment — from the state’s biggest corporations, to both political parties, to labor unions and the ACLU. Joined under the banner of One United Michigan, opponents have run a scare campaign, warning that Prop 2 will turn back the clock on minorities and gut women’s programs.

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But California’s decade under Prop 209 — virtually identical in language to Prop 2 — proves otherwise.

Prop 209 has largely worked as advertised, has not adversely affected women, and, most impressively, has benefited minorities by dramatically increasing graduation rates, thus boosting their chance for success in the job market.

One United Michigan warns that MCRI is “a national disaster headed for Michigan,” citing a marked reduction in black and Hispanic enrollment since Prop 209’s passage at California’s most elite schools, UC-Berkeley and UCLA.

But a closer look at the numbers reveals that Prop 209 has not meant an overall decline in minority enrollment in the California system, but a reapportionment of minorities to other schools. UC-Riverside and UC-Santa Cruz, for example, have seen dramatic increases in black admissions — with UC-Riverside’s enrollment alone up 240 percent.

Richard Sander, a UCLA law professor who has closely studied college affirmative action programs, points to data from UC-San Diego to illustrate how race-neutral admissions is producing better students.

“If you compare 1995-96 with 1999-01 — a clear before-and-after Prop 209 comparison,” says Sander, a longtime liberal civil rights activist, “you’ll see that, for African-Americans, the 1995 class had a four-year graduation rate of 26%, while the 2001 class had a 52% graduation rate [Hispanics numbers are comparable]. For whites and Asians, it barely changes. This is almost certainly due largely to the reduction of preferences. The five and six-year grad rates for minorities get pretty close to the white rates [within five points], which of course means that differences in academic performance have also narrowed a lot.”

Meanwhile, at the University of Michigan, black graduation rates are still a whopping 17 percentage points behind whites.

Sander is critical of such gaps, not only because they stigmatize minorities as poor performers, but because it leaves them without degrees. By contrast, he says, in the post-209 California system, “if we looked at actual BAs produced, rather than entering freshmen, the post-209 numbers for blacks and Hispanics would look even better.”

This should be of interest to Michigan corporations who fret that Prop 2 will reduce the minority job-applicant pool. General Motors, Ford, Detroit Edison utility, and others have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into One United Michigan’s anti-Prop 2 jihad. But, as California vividly illustrates, affirmative action has actually cost them qualified graduates.

In 2005, Sander cited race preferences for blacks failing the bar exam at four times the rate of whites nationally: “Black students admitted through preferences generally have quite low grades — not because of any racial characteristic, but because the preferences themselves put them at an enormous academic disadvantage.” The perverse result is that “the benefits of attending an elite school have been substantially overrated…job market data suggests that most black lawyers entering the job market would have higher earnings in the absence of preferential admissions, because better grades trump the costs in prestige.”

Are you listening General Motors?

A surprise benefit of Prop 209 has been its positive effect on academic outreach to the poor. One of the dirty secrets of race preferences was that elite colleges were chasing a small pool of applicants from upper income households. Forced to recruit without the benefit of race, the California system has broadened its outreach programs to all income groups. A study by The Pacific Legal Foundation’s Eryn Hadley found that elite schools have refocused resources on preparing “K-12 students for college life. The UC system now offers many race-neutral programs for individual students who are disadvantaged or attend low performing schools.” Consequently, students on Pell Grants — scholarships awarded to low income students — at UC-Berkeley and UCLA today make up nearly 40 percent of their student bodies.

By contrast, the University of Michigan — the state’s premier public college — has just 13 percent of students on Pell grants.

Despite minimal media coverage of Prop 209’s success, Michigan polls show voters seem inherently to understand the unfairness of race preferences. To counter this, One United Michigan has cynically tried to change the subject to women. “Math and science programs for women will be shut,” declares a One Michigan’s television ad. “When [Prop 209] passed in California, funding for breast and cervical cancer screenings were put at risk.”

Such rhetoric is as dishonest as it is calculated to con a demographic that makes up over 50 percent of the electorate.

Never mind that the two main proponents of the initiative are Jennifer Gratz and Barbara Gutter, both leading spokeswomen for Prop 2 who sued the University of Michigan for racial discrimination. Or that Prop 2’s language — which explicitly limits its purview to “public employment, education or contracting” — has no bearing on women’s services or courses.

The Pacific Legal Foundation’s lead attorney, Sharon Browne, confirms that not one lawsuit has eroded women’s disease research post-Prop 209: “Any such lawsuit would be laughed out of court.” Indeed, the Golden State today remains the world’s largest investor in women’s disease prevention. The state’s pre-Prop 209 breast cancer research program — which draws its $164 million through a check-off provision on the state’s personal income tax form — has continued unchallenged.

Despite being outspent, Connerly’s initiative remains ahead in the latest Detroit News poll just a week before Election Day. Passage would represent an opportunity for Michigan to break down the barriers of racial stigma and craft better solutions to minority achievement than the patronizing, discriminatory programs of racial preference.

Just as California has done in the wake of Prop 209.

Henry Payne is a freelance writer in Detroit, and editorial cartoonist for the Detroit News.



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