Campaign Crawlers

Colorblind and Poor

Michigan's Civil Rights Initiative is on the ballot this year -- but it seems to be spending most of its time and money in court, the only place opponents feel they can beat it.

By and 10.13.06

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In November, Michigan may reveal exactly how much disdain voters have for affirmative action -- i.e., race and gender preferences. While previous ballot initiatives banning preferences in California and Washington proved successful, the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI) may prove a far greater test case because its supporters are woefully under-funded.

As was the case in California and Washington, MCRI supporters face a large, well-funded opposition. Corporations, eager to demonstrate their inclusiveness, provide a great deal of funding. Teachers unions, eager to hide their failures at the K-12 levels, have voiced their support for affirmative action. Politicians, eager to court the Detroit vote, have declared their opposition as well. Even state Republicans are heading for the hills.

But MCRI supporters have faced an opposition far more determined and extreme than the opposition in California and Washington. The most extreme of the opposition groups is By Any Means Necessary (BAMN). The name says it all -- BAMN has resorted to shout downs and even advocated breaking of the law the defeat MCRI. But its most effective tactic has been the lawsuit. It has filed multiple challenges against MCRI, forcing the MCRI Committee, the main supporters of MRCI, to spend most of its resources on fighting court battles.

While BAMN has been diverting the resources of the MRCI Committee, other opposition groups have been free to run advertisements that go largely unchallenged. The most notable of such groups is One United Michigan (OUM), which has spent millions on TV commercials opposing MCRI. To say the least, the commercials are slick, engaging in subtle distortions that enable OUM to sidestep the charge of lying.

Not surprisingly, the OUM commercials omit the word "preferences." This, despite the fact that the MCRI prohibits only programs that "grant 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."

SMARTLY, OUM HAS FOCUSED ITS CAMPAIGN on women -- a far larger voting bloc than minorities. In One United's nine television ads, there are exactly zero black males, traditionally some of the most underrepresented individuals on college campuses. Those same nine commercials contain exactly one man -- who is, fittingly, talking about his daughters.

Of particular note is a commercial featuring two middle-school girls. The ad suggests that the girls are able to pursue their dreams of higher education because of Kamp Kettering, a summer program for girls interested in science, math, and engineering, and the Beecher Scholarship Incentive Program, which, among other things, gives college scholarships to disadvantaged youth. Yet Kamp Kettering is run by Kettering University, a private college, and the Beecher Scholarship Incentive Program receives its funding from the Ruth Mott Foundation, a private charity. Since MCRI only applies to public institutions, it would have no effect on these private programs. However, the commercial never actually states that MCRI threatens these programs, making it more difficult to charge OUM with blatant deception. Nevertheless, it is a safe bet that is exactly what OMU wants to imply, otherwise why waste funds on the commercial?

On the rare occasions when MCRI opponents opt to make coherent claims to support their position, their arguments have been dubious at best. Recently, the University of Michigan's Center for the Education of Women released a report (PDF) entitled The Potential Impact of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative on Employment, Education and Contracting. In the report, Susan Kaufmann paints a dismal picture of the post-preference world. She concludes:

Evidence from California indicates that Prop. 209 has eroded or eliminated previously legal, court-sanctioned efforts by state and local governments and educational institutions to reach out to women and minorities in order to reverse historic discrimination and exclusion by providing fair and equal access to opportunity.


The notion that the MCRI will eliminate "outreach" programs designed simply to provide "fair and equal access" to women and minorities is the most prominent argument among MCRI opponents. OUM has realized that the most effective way to gain support is to perpetuate the notion that rich white males are campaigning to deprive women and minorities of equal opportunity.

But to what extent have these programs suffered in California? Kaufmann's report laments the loss of pre-college outreach programs for minorities, and cites the Early Academic Outreach Program as evidence. Today, that eliminated program considers itself "one of the state's most successful pre-collegiate student academic programs," and serves more than 80,000 schools. In fact, the University of California itself claims to have "dramatically expanded" outreach efforts since Prop. 209 passed.

The California School Paraprofessional Teacher Training Program was also listed. Since Proposition 209 was passed, this program has expanded dramatically, serving over 1,800 members, 70% of which are ethnic minorities.

Other "outreach" programs to which Kaufmann refers were not exactly benign. She claims that Proposition 209 eliminated previously legal efforts to make "good faith efforts to meet goals for subcontracting women" and "outreach efforts" designed to increase participation. These "goals," however, were actually defined by specific percentages. Businesses that met these percentages were given preferential treatment, and businesses that did not were required to take active steps to meet them. Logically, California courts ruled these "percentage goals" were actually quotas, and declared them unconstitutional. The "outreach efforts, " meanwhile, required contractors to grant preferential treatment to minority- and women-owned businesses, which California courts also ruled unconstitutional. These were not mild outreach programs. They were mandated quotas and preferences.

WITH SUPPORTERS OF MCRI having to spend most of their time fighting lawsuits, MCRI opponents have been able to release largely unanswered propaganda. As a result, the polls on MCRI are mixed. A recent poll by the Detroit Free Press showed MCRI losing by two points, while one by the Detroit News showed it up by nine. Supporters of MCRI can take some solace in the fact that similar measures in California and Washington were polling close running up to the election and they ultimately prevailed by wide margins.

Nevertheless, the MCRI Committee has only recently been able to run radio ads supporting MCRI and has not yet been able to go on television. If MCRI prevails in November, it will show that the public's opposition to race and gender-based preferences runs deep.

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David Hogberg is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.  Follow David Hogberg on Twitter.