The disappointing passage of Proposal 2 in Michigan, after similar right-wing successes with Prop 209 in California and Initiative 200 in Washington state, means that pro-affirmative action forces need to become more aggressive in defending and explaining the law. A failure to do either will spell the end of affirmative action as we know it.
The irony of the misnamed "Michigan Civil Rights Initiative" passing is that it was the suit against the University of Michigan Law School that paved the way for the United States Supreme Court to uphold the concept of affirmative action. The court, rejecting a more numbers-oriented affirmative action program that the university used at the undergraduate level, approved the more holistic approach used by the law school.
Writing for the 5-4 majority, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor stated, "The Law School's narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body is not prohibited by the Equal Protection Clause."
What the law likes to refer to as a "reasonable person" would have concluded that the issue was clearly settled. Far from it. Instead, Ward Connerly, the conservative Black California businessman who once benefited from a state set-aside program, decided to take his anti-affirmative action crusade on the road. While Connerly leads the attack on one flank, an even more successful assault is being carried out by the Center for Individual Rights, a conservative think tank opposed to affirmative action. By simply threatening to file suit against universities, the institutions usually buckle rather than litigate.
Sadly, even the Justice Department came down on the side of the think tank and pressured Southern Illinois University to terminate three fellowship programs whose recipients were mainly underrepresented women or people of color.
But the Center for Individual Rights didn't stop there. It is now suing the Virginia Commonwealth University and the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund for operating a two-week high school journalism program designed to encourage African Americans to go into journalism — a field in which they are underrepresented.
The think tank and other conservative groups are basically using the "equal protection clause" of the 14th Amendment, which was passed to end discrimination against African Americans, to attack programs aimed at helping Blacks. It has shamelessly turned the 14th Amendment on its head.
They've been so successful that the news media have adopted the language the far right uses — even our own leaders have fallen into that trap. How can we get news outlets to stop equating race- and gender-sensitive actions with "preferences," if we're using the loaded language ourselves?
As a 1995 report by the National Association of Black Journalists pointed out, "Since polls have shown that the public supports affirmative action, but opposes 'preferential treatment,' using the terms interchangeably under the guise of objective reporting, unfairly characterizes affirmative action."
Admission to college has never been based strictly on test scores and grade point averages, yet the public is made to feel guilty because Jennifer Gratz, a White applicant, was not immediately accepted into the University of Michigan undergraduate school while supposedly "less qualified" African Americans were.
The University of Michigan noted, "In 2005, when petitioner Gratz applied … more than 1,400 White and Asian American students with lower adjusted high school GPAs or test scores than hers were admitted, while more than 2,000 White and Asian American students with higher adjusted GPAs and test scores were rejected (Brief for Respondents, No. 02-516, Gratz v. Bollinger)."
So much for Jennifer Gratz being discriminated against because she's White.
George E. Curry is editor-in-chief of the NNPA News Service and BlackPressUSA.com