Politics & Policy

Putting Preferences to a Vote

Connerly launches Michigan ballot initiative.

ANN ARBOR, MICH. — Quoting from the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a black civil-rights leader announces a ballot initiative to end racial discrimination and is lustily booed as a racist by left-wing activists backed by the Democratic party and their big-business allies.

Welcome to the new civil-rights movement. You’ll need a scorecard to figure out which side the players are on.

In a hastily arranged news conference Tuesday, black California businessman and chairman of the American Civil Rights Coalition Ward Connerly came to Michigan to try and seize back the initiative from a Supreme Court that only three weeks ago made racial preferences the law of the land. “To the justices of the Court, I say, respectfully, that we will not wait 25 years for the principle of equal treatment to be restored,” said Connerly from the steps of the University of Michigan’s graduate-school library. “Do we have so little confidence in the American spirit and in yet unborn Americans of African and Mexican descent that we consign them to another generation of presumed inadequacy?”

Drawing on his successful anti-preference initiatives in California and Washington state, Connerly’s revolution goes to the grassroots. Convinced that five judges have usurped the democratic process, he proposes to put racial preferences to a popular vote and let the people decide. Connerly first needs 317,517 signatures to get on the 2004 ballot, and he has reason to be confident in the outcome. Public-opinion polls in Michigan consistently show large majorities opposed to racial preferences in admissions and hiring. An EPIC/MRA poll this spring found 63 percent of Michiganders against — and only 27 percent for — racial preferences while an online Detroit News poll found a whopping 89-11 percent opposed.

But the circumstances of Connerly’s press conference show his fight will not be easy.

Stealing Connerly’s thunder, the Michigan Republican party announced Monday that it would not support his ballot initiative. “I fear this ballot initiative would openly serve to further divide people along racial lines, which would be entirely counterproductive,” said GOP party chair Betsy DeVos. Worse still, the loss of Republican support also means the loss of access to the DeVos family fortune (her husband is the founder of Amway). DeVos has long been one of the biggest bankrollers of conservative causes in the state — including 2000′s nationally watched campaign for Michigan school vouchers. Without their financial muscle, Connerly supporters concede, the campaign will need to turn to out-of-state-money sources, providing ammunition to opponents who are already declaring Connerly a carpetbagger who should “go home” to California.

Privately, GOP sources say, Michigan Republicans’ stunning decision comes directly from the White House. President George W. Bush takes pride in his outreach initiatives to blacks and Hispanics and has made it clear to state lawmakers that he wants his 2004 reelection path clear of divisive race issues. Michigan Republicans have obliged by abandoning Connerly’s proposal.

Without the party’s machinery, the Republican grassroots may still rally, but they were not in evidence at Connerly’s news conference. In fact, in a small crowd of maybe 150, Connerly opponents noticeably outnumbered supporters.

Connerly struggled to make himself heard as members of the pro-preference group Equality By All Means Necessary (BAMN) tried to shout him down. In a surreal scene, students held placards in Connerly’s face that read “Boycott segregationist Ward Connerly” and “Don’t come here and spew your racism” as they yelled “You suck!” and “Bullsh**!” Inevitably, and absurdly, a white student screamed at Connerly: “You’re a racist!” “That’s just plain silly,” the black businessman replied.

Activists representing BAMN and Students Supporting Affirmative Action (SSAA) had reason to be feeling their oats. Along with the unexpected support of state Republicans, their side also enjoys the backing of some of Michigan’s largest corporations, including General Motors and Ford. Just as they exercised decisive influence over Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s majority opinion, these companies have also vowed to join the fight against Connerly’s initiative. Says SSAA representative Claire Morrison: “We are encouraged no other institutions are embracing Connerly’s fringe beliefs.”

Eventually, police were called in to remove the more disruptive members of BAMN, but others stayed on for Connerly and his rainbow coalition of supporters including Tom Wood, co-draftee of California’s similar Prop 209, and Valery Pech, a construction-company owner and a litigant in the recent Adarand anti-preference suit before the Supreme Court. But the Left activists’ strongest venom was reserved for two women, Barbara Grutter and Jennifer Gratz, the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court cases.

Where in other circumstances these women claiming discrimination would be objects of the Left’s favor, here they were the enemy. Gratz, the first in her blue-collar family to go to college, was greeted with shouts of “We don’t like you!” and “You are a whitie, white girl!” (ah, that elite Michigan education).

Ironically, the rhetoric these activists were booing was their own. Grutter, a 43-year-old single mom, spoke passionately: “Thirty years ago I entered a sexist work environment. Then I applied to law school 25 years later only to find myself discriminated against on other grounds.” “Boo! Go to the ‘hood and see how it feels!” was the response.

Repeatedly, Connerly and his allies cited the words of the 1964 Civil Right Act and the civil-rights movement — language that has been all but abandoned by modern liberals eager to embrace racial preferences. Michigan Professor Karl Cohen, a Jew (not a recognized University of Michigan minority class) and veteran of the 1960′s civil-rights era, chillingly quoted Thurgood Marshall’s words from Brown v. Board of Education case: “Distinctions by race are so insidious, so arbitrary, that the state must not invoke them in any sphere.”

Today, those words of hope and nondiscrimination are viewed by Michigan liberals, corporations, newspapers, universities, and both political parties as divisive and hopelessly naïve. But if Connerly is to be defeated, these establishment institutions now must convince a majority of Michiganians as well.

As the largely student crowd filed away from Connerly’s news conference, the professional spinmeisters took their places before the media microphones. One of them was Connerly opponent, Democratic-party chair, and corporate lawyer Melvin “Butch” Hallowell. A product of a well-to-do black parents himself, Hallowell’s own children of privilege may one day receive racial preference to the University of Michigan over the white, Asian, or Jewish child of a blue-collar family because the Supreme Court has declared it “a compelling state interest.”

If Ward Connerly’s initiative gets on the ballot, Michiganians will have a chance to determine if that’s fair.

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

Henry Payne — Henry Payne is the auto critic for the Detroit News.

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