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Published: Monday, 4/24/2006

Don't call it 'civil rights'

Now that the so-called "Michigan Civil Rights Initiative" has been cleared for the November ballot, voters need to be reminded that voting for the issue will not enhance the civil rights of anyone but will merely drive a new wedge between whites and minorities in the Wolverine State.

The proposed state constitutional amendment would ban affirmative action in government hiring and in university admissions, in opposition to a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the use of racial considerations in admissions at the University of Michigan.

In that decision, the high court said UM could use race as a factor in its law school admissions process but struck down a system of extra points for minority undergraduate applicants.

Despite the narrow 5-4 vote, the decision was seen as an endorsement of affirmative action programs which, since the 1960s, have sought to ensure that blacks and other minorities are fairly represented on college campuses and in government hiring and contracting.

The ballot issue, however, is far more sweeping. It would "ban affirmative action programs that give preferential treatment to groups or individuals based on their race, gender, color, ethnicity, or national origin," not only in university admissions but in state government hiring and contracting.

The ambiguous language of the issue and its misleading title are intended to draw a positive response from voters who may not realize what is at play.

Affirmative action, as it is practiced today under federal law, does not include the use of racial quotas, which we adamantly oppose. Neither is it "reverse discrimination," another misnomer. Rather, such programs simply ensure that minorities get fair consideration, in contrast to the past when they were effectively excluded, whether explicitly or implicitly through a rigged set of rules.

Minority applications plummeted at UM following the Supreme Court ruling but, to their credit, officials believe a racially diverse student body enriches the school, and they have redoubled their efforts to ensure that they have one. Minority students now make up nearly 8 percent of UM's 25,000 undergraduates.

We understand how white anger at perceived discrimination can prompt measures such as the ballot issue, but there is no evidence that UM was or is guilty of anything other than trying to build a broader university community.

That's the nature of an admittedly selective admissions process at one of the nation's leading institutions of public higher education, where a grade point average is only one measure of a potential student.

It is also valuable to understand that the ballot issue campaign is being supported by out-of-state interests and is fronted by a woman who was rejected for a student slot on UM's Ann Arbor campus but was accepted at the Dearborn branch and ultimately earned a degree. Is she a victim of lost opportunity? We think not.

The issue is a gratuitous slap at years of social progress in Michigan that have resulted in fair consideration for everyone when it comes to going to college, government employment, and state contracts. This is no time to turn back the clock.



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