Prop 2: A Lesson for Republicans
It would behoove Republicans to consider the unpopularity of racial preferences.


Henry Payne

After an otherwise grim election, conservatives can exult in the improbable, landslide win of Proposition 2 banning racial and gender preferences in Michigan. A pity the Republican party can’t share in the celebration.

That’s because Michigan Republicans found it more politically expedient to join Democrats and Big Business in opposition to Prop 2 than to fight for the principle of race neutrality in government admissions, hiring, and contracting. The party’s reasoning? By throwing the initiative overboard, they hoped to keep minority turnout low, thus helping GOP nominee Dick DeVos in his run for governor against incumbent Jennifer Granholm.

But these oh-so-clever Republicans badly misread the electorate.

Democrats turned out in droves anyway, dealing DeVos an unexpected shellacking, 56-42 percent. But the Prop 2 result was just as unexpected. Even as they voted for a Democratic governor and statehouse, voters — including waves of Democrats — gave Prop 2 a staggering 58-42 win, defying all polls that had shown the initiative in a dead heat.

More impressive still, Prop 2 voters ignored a solid wall of establishment opposition that included both political parties, Big Businesses like Ford and General Motors, and every activist group from the ACLU to the NAACP. Prop 2 was outspent 4-1, raising only $1 million with Republican tree-shakers on the sidelines.

The initiative’s 16-point margin eclipsed California Prop 209’s 10-point margin in 1996 — a similar ballot proposal that enjoyed unequivocal Republican support. Furthermore, initiative sponsor Ward Connerly and his five-person staff overcame one of the nastiest campaigns in Michigan history. Fueled by auto money, an opposition coalition called One United Michigan aired ad after ad warning that Prop 2 posed a threat to Michigan “comparable to Katrina and 9/11.” One United warned that the clock would be turned back on blacks and that women would lose access to health services and breast cancer research.

Just three days before the election, the opposition even garnered headlines with the libel that Connerly — a black man who grew up in segregated Louisiana — had accepted the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan.

But Michigan voters would have none of it. “Michigan voters demonstrated that people are willing to make up their own minds no matter what the elites say,” said Connerly.

The elites’ predictions of a post-Prop 2 disaster, by the way, are without merit. Ten years of California’s Prop 209 proves otherwise.

Minority admissions at elite schools like Berkeley are down, but their numbers across the California state system are virtually the same. Gaining acceptance by merit, minorities now graduate in higher numbers — up by 50 percent in some cases, and gaining on the graduation rates of whites and Asians. By contrast, graduation rates of blacks at the University of Michigan — where race still plays a large factor — lag a whopping 17 percentage points behind whites.

Prop 2 opponents have ignored such results by insisting that race preferences are necessary to achieve the chimera of “diversity.” One United’s Paul Hillegonds wrote in the Detroit News: “White males like my young son…need to grow up experiencing and appreciating diversity in today’s global marketplace.”

But the mission of universities is to graduate students, not provide wallflowers for white kids. Pushing blacks into schools where they are mismatched with their peers only “feeds racial stereotyping,” says UCLA scholar Rick Sander. “A wide range of scholars have documented that whites tend to exclude blacks from their study groups — the exact opposite of what affirmative action intended.”

It wasn’t just Michigan Republicans who abandoned Connerly’s movement. Under the new slogan of “compassionate conservatism,” the national party has turned a cold shoulder to Connerly in recent years. Florida governor Jeb Bush, at the urging of his brother, ran Connerly out of that state in 2000.

But now, thanks to Connerly’s persistence and the common sense of Michigan voters, race neutrality is squarely back in the national spotlight. At Prop 2’s victory party Tuesday night, Connerly, 67, marveled at the crowd of young people cheering the initiative’s victory. They represent a new generation that has felt the sting of discrimination at the hand of universities like Michigan.

One of those young people was Jennifer Gratz, the white 29-year old daughter of a cop who chairs Connerly’s Michigan organization. Ten years ago, despite a superlative high school career and being the first member of her family to apply to college, she was rejected by U. of Michigan for less-qualified candidates because of the color of her skin.

Tuesday, she celebrated. “The entire country was watching, and the people of Michigan stepped up,” she exulted. “Michigan is now leading a national movement — we are on the brink of something big.”

Principled, ambitious Republicans would do well to listen to her message.

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