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Published: Saturday, 1/24/2004

Unfairness up north

Petitioners supporting the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative will soon be gathering signatures, but voters Up North should not be fooled. This proposed state constitutional amendment does not promote the cause of civil rights.

What it is, rather, is a conservative social-engineering solution in search of a problem. The fact that the $4 million petition drive is being paid for by interests from outside Michigan should only make voters more wary.

In bland but sweeping wording, the initiative, being pushed for the Nov. 2 ballot, would prohibit state and local government, including colleges and universities, "from discriminating against or granting preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting."

While it sounds reasonable, the initiative actually is a Trojan horse measure that would effectively abolish affirmative action in Michigan, ending painstaking efforts achieved over many years to ensure racial diversity in public hiring, contracts, and admission to colleges and universities. Breaking down age-old racial barriers is an ongoing job requiring constant vigilance. Sadly, it may never be completely achieved. Voters should refuse to sign petitions to put the issue on the ballot.

The initiative is a creature of Ward Connerly, a black member of the University of California Board of Regents, who claims to be promoting a "color-blind " society. His Sacramento-based American Civil Rights Institute successfully pushed similar initiatives in California, where it was known as Proposition 209, and in Washington. A Florida proposal was halted by that state's Supreme Court.

Michigan apparently was chosen for this effort because the University of Michigan was at the center of the United States Supreme Court's decision last year upholding limited use of race in college admissions.

Heading the petition drive is Jennifer Gratz, an unsuccessful UM applicant who sued in 1997, claiming she was better qualified than some minority applicants who were accepted. Ms. Gratz, 26, says she has taken on the job as executive director of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative because she doesn't "want anyone to go through what I went through."

What exactly did Ms. Gratz go through? No, she didn't get into UM at its Ann Arbor campus, but she was accepted at its Dearborn branch, where she obtained a degree. Her complaint about loss of opportunity sounds more like a cry for racial privilege.

There is little doubt that the Michigan initiative is intended to capitalize on the residual anger of whites, which is why the issue has the potential to reopen old wounds.

We understand white anger, and we remain opposed to racial quotas. But voters should not be gulled into believing that the constitutional amendment would simply guarantee "equal protection under the law" regardless of race, sex, or ethnic origin, as claimed by the issue backers.

Abolishing affirmative action will produce a backsliding of social progress in Michigan: fewer minority students at state universities, fewer minorities in public jobs, and fewer minority businesses sharing in public contracts.

Picking at the scab of race in our society might be a viable tactic for the Connerly faction in its push toward the November ballot, but the scars of social divisiveness will be unmistakable for many years to come. Michigan voters can stop this unnecessary pain by simply refusing to sign the petition.



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