In a public letter, Congressman John Dingell from Michigan’s 15th District has told California civil-rights activist Ward Connerly to “go home and stay there.” Connerly replied in a letter asserting his constitutional right to travel freely and to express his views.
Dingell posted his astonishing letter on his congressional website, which instantly frames his action as a matter of political grandstanding. The occasion of this exchange is Connerly’s announcement two weeks ago that he is supporting a ballot initiative in Michigan modeled on Proposition 209 in California that would, if passed, outlaw racial preferences in hiring and college admissions. The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative would, as Connerly puts it, force Michigan into compliance with the provision of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 that all Americans be treated equally “without regard to race, color or national origin.”
Dingell presumably understands correctly that, were it to pass, this initiative would render irrelevant the Supreme Court’s recent decisions permitting the University of Michigan’s racial preferences under the guise of “diversity.” But whatever Dingell’s calculations, his letter achieves a level of venom seldom seen in American public life. Declaring to Connerly that, “Michiganders do not take kindly to your ignorant meddling in our affairs,” the congressman appears to have borrowed his rhetoric from some swamp-fever version of the Old South.
Or perhaps not. Maybe the congressman has been up nights watching Turner Movie Classics and has decided to play the role of the small-town boss afraid that outsiders will uncover Shadyville’s sordid secrets. Sorry, congressman. We already know what the University of Michigan is doing.
In replying, Connerly doesn’t even bother to express surprise at Dingell’s bullying. Instead he goes straight to the Constitution. Connerly does sound a note of quiet contempt for Boss Dingle, but mostly he just looks him in the eye and says, “I’m staying.”
No doubt this story will be everywhere this week, and it doesn’t require much analysis. But if you’ve had any doubts about who holds the moral upper hand in America’s current debate about our government’s use of race, we have an answer as crystal clear as the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was in another time and place. Justice O’Connor may speak for a five-member majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, but she does not speak for the American conscience. And Congressman Dingell may speak for some small-minded constituents in Michigan’s 15th district, but he doesn’t speak for the rule of law. On the vexed matters of race and civil rights, the American citizen right now who speaks to our highest and best aspirations is Ward Connerly.
Maybe Congressman Dingell’s edict will light a fire under those of us who have been hanging our heads and rubbing our bruises since the Supreme Court defeat. The next battle is in Michigan. Congressman, it was an unusual invitation, but I get the message. I’m packing my carpetbag right now. I look forward to seeing you.
— Peter Wood is author of Diversity: The Invention of A Concept and professor of anthropology at Boston University.