Politics & Policy

The Michigan Win

Lessons in a victory over racial preferences.

Much has been said and written about the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI), a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly approved by the voters of that state this past November. But there are ten major points in need of emphasis.

#ad#First: When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the pursuit of “diversity” in the student body was a sufficiently compelling factor to justify race preferences, far too many of us involved in the equal rights movement believed that the fight was over until the Court revisited the issue, probably in another 25 years. Our victory in Michigan ought to teach us the lesson of perseverance in the furtherance of our ideals. Getting rid of race preferences should be likened to a marathon, not a sprint, considering how deeply embedded such practices are in the fabric of American life. A negative court decision should be regarded as merely a speed bump.

Second: If we believe in the principle of self-government, we must have confidence in the collective wisdom of the people. Inherent in this is the importance of taking the time to understand the nuances of an issue so that we can articulate our message in a way people can understand. By voting in favor of MCRI, contrary to the exhortations of nearly every component of the Michigan establishment — social, civic, political, and business — the people showed that they had understood the issue and decided on it for themselves.

Third: It is clear that proponents of race preferences have given up on their ability to convince the electorate of the effectiveness of “affirmative action” in making up for our nation’s historical racial wrongs. Instead, they now seek to convince white women that they ought to support affirmative action. This argument failed in Michigan, as it did in California and in Washington State. It appears that “white guilt,” as Shelby Steele describes the phenomenon, has just about run its course with respect to the people’s tolerance for race preferences.

Fourth: In the view of most Americans, “affirmative action” has become synonymous with race preferences. There is no longer any need to distinguish between the two and doing so will most likely lead only to confusion.

Fifth: The electorate is not persuaded, on this issue, by endorsements against the elimination of preferences from larger-than-life public figures. For example, in all three of the campaigns that we have conducted to date — California, Washington, and Michigan — Bill Clinton and Colin Powell strongly urged a “No” vote. In Michigan, Senator Barack Obama demonstrated that, while he may be a “fresh face” on the political scene, he embraces the same old stale ideas as other Democrats when it comes to race preferences. Not only did he oppose MCRI, he even cut a radio ad claiming that “the playing field” is not level for women and “minorities.”

Sixth: The term “minority” has clearly ceased to be a term that denotes any numerical circumstance. It is a political definition used to suggest “social and economic disadvantage.” The term was used consistently throughout the MCRI campaign to describe those who suffer from “institutional racism in a society dominated by white males.” This definition would allow those of Mexican descent in California, who are rapidly becoming the numerical majority, to be viewed as a “minority,” despite their fast-approaching majority numerical status.

Seventh: Affirmative action essentially originated in a 1961 executive order issued by President John F. Kennedy commanding that all federal agencies and those groups doing business with the federal government take “affirmative action” to ensure that they were not discriminating against anyone because of race or skin color. Later, President Lyndon Johnson turned the concept into a temporary preference effort to enable black people to enter the mainstream of American life; to “level the playing field,” to use the cliché. Now, affirmative action is viewed as an entitlement for “women and minorities,” not only to “level the playing field” but to achieve the amorphous objective of “diversity.”

This conversion of the rationale for affirmative action is insidious. The injection of “diversity” considerations generally reflects willingness to compromise on merit and qualifications. The minimum becomes acceptable rather than the best, and the need to foster diversity is quite possibly interminable (in the words of Kwame Kilpatrick, mayor of Detroit, “We will have affirmative action today. We will have affirmative action tomorrow. We will have affirmative action forever.”). Government-sanctioned discrimination to engineer racial and gender “representation” in various fields is not a good policy for America. The need for “diversity” in the student body and in other areas of life in Michigan was the centerpiece of the campaign against MCRI; and the electorate rejected the argument.

Eighth: Once again, the proponents of race preferences demonstrated how well disciplined they were in their defense of affirmative action. Although various interests and organizations clearly had different objectives, they suppressed their differences and stayed on message in pursuit of their goal: to defeat MCRI. No lie was too big for them. Even church leaders stretched the truth in an effort to arouse their flocks. The pro-preference crowd constitutes what is tantamount to a national “diversity” industry; and it is formidable. Although the MCRI campaign was badly outnumbered, and lacked the equivalent of a national “movement,” there were elements of support that proved to be critical — Dusty Rhodes and National Review Online, conservative talk radio, Roger Clegg and the Center for Equal Opportunity, the Center for Individual Rights, and several major donors including Robert Browne, Dan Cook, Virginia Mannheimer, Ned McCune, Joseph Schulman, Paul Singer, and John Uhlmann.

Ninth: It was Ronald Reagan who created the political doctrine, known as the “Eleventh Commandment,” that “thou shall not speak ill of other Republicans.” President Reagan, however, never lived to meet some of today’s Republicans, especially those running for office in Michigan. Had he done so, perhaps he wouldn’t have been so charitable in his counsel. Republicans who head for the tall grass whenever the issue of race preferences presents itself are different only to a small degree from Democrats who engage in demagoguery on the issue.

Conservatives often make the tragic mistake of equating our conservatism with being a Republican. On matters of profound principle, such as equality, freedom, and liberty, any Republican who does not support these principles deserves to be criticized for his or her position. For us to do otherwise is to betray our responsibility to defend and protect our nation and to preserve and pass along to future generations a nation fit for them to live in.

Far too many Republicans have essentially abandoned the core principle of individual rights. Aligned with the far Left, the race advocates, and other “diversicrats” in opposition to MCRI were the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Dick DeVos, the GOP U.S. Senate candidate, the chairman of the Michigan Republican party and virtually every Republican candidate for office in that state. Fortunately, their explanations weren’t credible: MCRI was “divisive”; it would result in a lot of “hidden, unintended consequences”; and the initiative posed a threat to single-sex schools, of which there are none in Michigan.

DeVos’s opposition was especially disappointing. He is a champion of the school-choice movement, at the heart of which is the belief that the lives of poor black kids would be radically improved if their parents were empowered to make a choice about where their kids will go to school. One would think that those who believe in empowering Americans to improve their lives would be supportive of all efforts that strengthen individuals instead of making them reliant on the government and others for their success in American life.

Our freedom is threatened anytime the government intervenes to restrict an individual’s rights. Race preferences strike at the heart of American citizenship. How one is treated by one’s government is the crux of freedom. How can we look the other way when Americans are being deprived of their right to equal treatment before the law? Is party allegiance more important than the kind of life my grandchildren will have and the kind of nation that we bequeath to them?

Tenth: The significance of the victory in Michigan cannot be overstated. Even one of the major opponents of the initiative has described it as “the beginning of the end of affirmative action.” I concur with that assessment — and contend that the time is now to deliver the coup de grace. It is for this reason that Dusty Rhodes, John Uhlmann, Johnny Zamrzla (directors of the American Civil Rights Coalition), and I have announced our intention to conduct a “Super Tuesday for Equality” election in November 2008. This election will allow the electorate in several states to vote simultaneously on the issue of race preferences. Victories in these states — yet to be announced — along with a hoped-for favorable Supreme Court decision in the Louisville and Seattle cases now pending before the Court, will place our nation back on track to the realization of our guarantee of equal treatment to all Americans by their government.

Finally, while I have received more than my fair share of applause for the victory in Michigan, our nation owes a profound debt of gratitude to Jennifer Gratz, a young woman who, at the age of 19, knew that race preferences were wrong and had the courage to challenge such practices at the University of Michigan (UM). Nor can we forget Carl Cohen, a philosophy professor at UM who has consistently ignored political correctness on his liberal campus and fought valiantly for the institution that he loves to eliminate its preferential policies. And, finally, when other politicians were running for cover, State Representative Leon Drolet placed his political career on the line by supporting MCRI.

I suffer no delusion that ballot initiatives or court decisions will bring race, gender, and ethnic preferences to a screeching halt. Such practices have become such a part of the institutional culture of so many public agencies that it will take decades to curtail them. But, the battle to end these insidious practices is now underway. We must work to complete that which must be done.

Ward Connerly is founder and chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute and a Bradley Prize recipient.

Most Popular

Economy & Business

The Swamp: Navarro Nucor Edition

The Wall Street Journal has a story today about the ties between President Trump's trade adviser, Peter Navarro, and the biggest steel company in the U.S. -- Nucor Corp. It is particularly interesting in light of the stiff steel tariffs successfully pushed by Navarro, which he championed ever since he joined the ... Read More


EMPIRICAL   As I can fathom neither endlessness nor the miracle work of deities, I hypothesize, assume, and guess.   The fact that I love you and you love me is all I can prove and proves me. — This poem appears in the April 2 print issue of National Review. Read More

Nancy MacLean Won’t Quit

One of the biggest intellectual jousting matches last year was between Duke history professor Nancy MacLean, who wrote a slimy, dishonest book about Nobel Prize–winning economist James Buchanan and the whole limited-government movement, and the many scholars who blasted holes in it. If it had been a boxing ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Rolling Back Dodd-Frank

The Senate on Wednesday passed a bill that would roll back parts of Dodd-Frank. The vote was 67–31, with 17 members of the Democratic caucus breaking party lines. If the legislation passes the House and is signed, it will be the largest change to the controversial financial-reform package since it became law in ... Read More

How Germany Vets Its Refugees

At the height of the influx of refugees into Germany in 2015–17, there was little doubt that mixed among the worthy cases were economic migrants taking advantage of the chaos to seek their fortunes in Europe. Perhaps out of instinctive pro-immigrant sentiment, Germany’s Left obscured the difference. Its ... Read More