In 1996, 55 percent of California voters approved Proposition 209, a ballot initiative that bars the use of affirmative action by state-funded educational and government institutions.
Its champion was Ward Connerly, an African American businessman and former member of the University of California's Board of Regents who heads the American Civil Rights Institute. In 1998, he undertook a similar initiative, I-200, in Washington state and emerged victorious with 59 percent of the vote.
Now, in 2006, he has taken his crusade against the use of affirmative action in higher education, public contracting and hiring programs to Michigan, a state that is no stranger to such controversy.
It was in Michigan where Jennifer Gratz, an honor roll high school graduate with a 3.8 grade point average, was denied admission to the University of Michigan in 1995.
Two years later, she filed suit, charging that the university's point system — that gave more points to some applicants based on race — unfairly rejected her. She took her fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 2003 found the university's points system for undergraduate admissions unconstitutional. The high court, however, did not prohibit the school from using race in admissions decisions. In a separate decision, it let stand the school's system for graduate programs.
Gratz eventually graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in mathematics and ended up with a job in the software industry — until she decided to become the executive director of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, with Connerly as her mentor. Together, Gratz and Connerly are attempting to persuade Michigan voters to approve having a ban on affirmative action written into the state's constitution.
"This is not about me," Gratz has been quoted as saying. "Michigan has had this debate for almost 10 years now. The people of Michigan believe in fairness."
But the U.S. Supreme Court decided this debate in 2003 with its duo of historic decisions. Unlike California's Proposition 209, Connerly's group aims to overturn what the highest court in the nation already decided.
Proposition 209 was hardly fair. A year after it took effect, admissions of African Americans to University of California schools took a 12 percent hit from 1997 to 1998, while overall admissions rose 5 percent. In 1995, Blacks made up 4.41 percent of the freshman class throughout the UC system, compared to 3.47 percent in 2005.
Where the effects are most evident is at the system's top-tier schools. At UC-Berkeley, admissions of Black students fell 56 percent from 1997 to 1998. In 1997, 7.84 percent of the freshman class was Black. In 2005, African Americans made up just 3.44 percent.
A similar decline in Black students at UCLA prompted university officials to adopt a "holistic" approach to admissions that allows decision-makers to consider all aspects of applicants. This came after the school discovered that only 96 Blacks — or 2 percent of the freshman class — were likely to enroll for the 2006 academic year.
Back in 1961, 134,000 Black students attended predominantly White colleges and universities around the country. Since then, there has been more than a 10-fold increase. You can't tell me that increased diversity hasn't had a positive effect on our nation — socially, politically and economically.
It is obvious that Proposition 209 has had negative effects that will continue to rear their ugly heads further down the line. And that's what supporters of such proposals as the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative should keep in mind.
This is not a debate about the value of affirmative action in higher education and elsewhere in American society. That has been settled to some extent. Corporate America, the military and civil society organizations have promoted the value of diversity in keeping the nation competitive on the world stage.
It's about Ward Connerly's assault on a system that has built the minority middle class in this country. He's pandering to the fears of a state savaged by layoffs and economic uncertainty. A win in Michigan may fuel similar efforts across the nation. But, a loss could definitely deal a death blow to the entire Connerly empire. It'll send a sign all over the nation that affirmative action is an important way to level the playing field in U.S. society.
It is time to put Connerly's efforts to subvert a very important institution into retirement along with him.
Marc H. Morial is President and CEO, of the National Urban League.