Friday, July 8, 2011

Affirmative Action in Michigan

In 2006 Michigan voters, via a voter's referendum, constitutionally banned public sector affirmative action for race and gender in education, employment and contracting. This meant that race or gender could officially no longer be taken in account when deciding who was accepted to a given school, which company won the bid for a state or local contract, or who got hired to a public sector job. This referendum was named Proposition 2 and passed easily by a 58-42 margin. The impact of this was mixed to say the least, as there is a Federal Executive Order 11246 ,which under certain circumstances requires federal contractors (ie. public universities) to have affirmative action programs or goals. 

But honestly few people in Michigan cared too much about the impact on employment or contracting so much as they did about the impact on education. Proposition 2 was passed as a reaction to two cases involving the University of Michigan and two different plaintiffs,  Jennifer Gratz (pictured above with Ward Connerly) and Barbara Grutter, who upon being denied admission to the undergrad program and the law school program respectively, threw the mother of all temper tantrums and literally decided to make a federal case out of it. Ultimately Gratz won her case and Grutter lost, for reasons which I am sure The Janitor can explain in great detail. Basically the Supreme Court decided that the undergrad affirmative action admissions policy was too strict and too close to a quota while the law school admissions policy was more narrowly structured, although Justice Sandra Day O'Connor noted that she did not expect that the law school's policy would be necessary 25 years from her decision approving it.

A 50% win wasn't good enough for Grutter and especially Gratz so in short order they hooked up with Ward Connerly, a man who proves that yes you can still make a living as a token minority, and convinced the majority of Michigan voters to alter our constitution to make it crystal clear that public sector affirmative action wasn't allowed any more, no way no how. Period.

Now here's where it gets kind of tricky. The other side (i.e. the good guys) decided to fight this ban in court. Although it was a long shot and I wasn't totally convinced of the validity of the legal arguments, to many's surprise, recently they actually won in federal court-The US 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The appeals court said Proposal 2, which was [passed] by a 58-42 percentage margin, is unconstitutional because it restructured Michigan’s political process in a way that placed special burdens on minorities that deprived them of equal protection under the law.“The majority may not manipulate the channels of change in a manner that places unique burdens on issues of importance to racial minorities,” Judge R. Guy Cole said in an opinion joined by Judge Martha Daughtrey. Judge Julia Gibbons dissented, saying she didn’t think Proposal 2 impermissibly restructured the political process.Cole and Daughtrey were appointed by President Bill Clinton. Gibbons was appointed by George W. Bush.Attorney Washington said Michigan colleges and universities provide preferential treatment to a variety of groups, including veterans, the poor and students from rural areas. He said Proposal 2 discriminated against blacks, Latinos and native Americans.Today’s decision is the latest development in a long and bitter battle over race admission policies in Michigan colleges and universities.
Needless to say Miss Jennifer wasn't too happy about this turn of events:
Gratz, however, said the majority opinion is “ludicrous and illogical.”
“This court is saying that we place a burden on minorities by treating them equally with non-minorities…that we have to treat people unequally in order to treat them equally,” Gratz said, “That is insane.”
And Michigan, which is now under Republican management, has promised to appeal.
But Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said this afternoon the decision will be appealed to the full 6th U.S. Circuit, and that, in the mean time, Proposal 2 will remain in effect.
"MCRI embodies the fundamental premise of what America is all about: equal opportunity under the law," Schuette said in a statement. "Entrance to our great universities must be based upon merit, and I will continue the fight for equality, fairness and rule of law."
I think that Grutter's and Gratz's arguments were ultimately unconvincing because there were several white people that had received admission to the law school or undergraduate program that had less competitive scores or grades than they did. In addition as supporters of affirmative action court pointed out there were several other categories of students who received diversity points in the admission process (geographical/poverty/veterans) besides just racial minorities. However I also must confess a slight bias against affirmative action in so-called objective criteria (i.e. grades/tests) while having a HUGE bias for it where the criteria aren't objective (real life/the workplace). In the workplace I've just seen and experienced too many instances where it's not what you know but who you know, who you are, how people respond and relate to you. I've seen whites with high school degrees making the same or more money than blacks with college degrees. I've seen whites picked out and groomed for promotion by white managers while blacks languish in the same area for years.  In virtually every organization I've been in the further up the chain you go the fewer and fewer black people you see. There I think some form of affirmative action is not only a good thing but required.
However one can make a convincing argument that because of historical and ongoing segregation, discrimination and consumption and endorsements of racist beliefs that blacks are still suffering from a disbelief in their own abilities and that this shows up in tests and grades. If this is really the case then it is incumbent upon society to provide some form of corrective to this reality.
Although I find this argument to have merit I don't think that Gratz or more importantly the Supreme Court will. Honestly I think this is just a road bump to the Supreme Court allowing Proposition 2 to stand. It's a huge step from saying that you can allow affirmative action to you must allow affirmative action.
What's your take?
Do the voters of Michigan have the right to ban state public sector affirmative action?
Do you think affirmative action is a winner politically?
Do you find the Court of Appeals' reasoning valid?

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