Reaffirm Affirmative Action?


Nov. 10, 2006 — -- Affirmative action continues to be one of our nation's most divisive issues, and on Election Day, the issue divided the state of Michigan.

Voters approved Proposal 2, a ballot initiative that bans Michigan affirmative action based on race, gender and ethnicity.

Ultimately, they decided to eliminate affirmative action by a margin of half a million. It passed in the state with 1.8 million votes in favor and 1.3 million opposed.

Today, a lawsuit is pending to save the policy that could go as far as the Supreme Court.

Those in favor of affirmative action say Tuesday's decision will negatively affect single-sex schools, university admissions, hiring policies, and government contracts for minorities and women.

The suit was filed in federal court by BAMN (The Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, and Immigration Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary), an affirmative-action advocacy group.

The group's suit names the state of Michigan and its governor as defendants, and alleges that the anti-affirmative action proposal violates equal protection under the 14th Amendment and, therefore, is invalid under federal law.

Despite the passage of this amendment to the state constitution, the University of Michigan remains committed to diversity.

On Wednesday, university president Mary Sue Coleman told the campus community, "We will find ways to overcome the handcuffs that Proposal 2 attempts to place on our reach for greater diversity."

Coleman also said that she was "exploring legal action concerning this initiative" and asked the university's attorneys "for their full and undivided support in defending diversity" at Michigan.

Jennifer Gratz is executive director of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative -- the group that sponsored Proposal 2.

Gratz told ABC News she believed banning affirmative action was better for racial equality.

"We need to move towards a colorblind government that treats people equally based on their merits," she said. "The people of Michigan have spoken."

Gratz added that she had patterned her proposal after California's Proposition 209, which was authored by California Civil Rights Initiative chairman, Ward Connerly, a staunch opponent of racial preferences.

Gratz calls Connerly "a supporter, mentor, friend and adviser," and noted that he had given "a significant amount of money" out of his own pocket to push Proposal 2 forward.

Gratz and Connerly have become the face of the fight against affirmative action -- ironic to some, as the two groups they represent -- white women and black men -- are said to be two of the groups who have benefited most from the policy.

Gratz has a history with the University of Michigan's affirmative-action policies.

She challenged racial preferences there after being waitlisted in 1995. Two years later, Gratz filed suit against the university and prevailed in the Supreme Court's 2003 Gratz vs. Bollinger.

In its 6-3 decision, the court found the undergraduate institution's admissions point system was unconstitutional. In other words, race could no longer be used as a deciding factor for undergraduate admissions.

Not so for Michigan Law, where the court upheld the law school's admissions programs, 5-4, in a companion case, Grutter vs. Bollinger.

The law school's policy took race into account only as one of many factors "to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body."

Shanta Driver, a BAMN attorney, told ABC News that the proposal never should have been on the Michigan ballot to begin with.

Her organization says the proposal was not only unconstitutional, but also was voted in on faulty premises.

"Based on 10 years of experience in California, we have a strong case to make," Driver said, referring to California's Proposition 209.

"The loss of affirmative action creates irreparable harm. … Universities are still reeling," Driver said.

Connerly, however, believes BAMN will fail even if its case goes to the nation's highest court. He welcomes the lawsuit.

"[This] was tried before and was thrown out by the courts. … My greatest hope is that it reaches the Supreme Court of the United States because it will hasten the demise of race-based preferences," Connerly said.

But Driver continues to remain optimistic. "We feel that we can convince even a conservative Supreme Court that the conservative thing to do is to maintain affirmative action," she said.

"It is not only the morally right thing to do but the politically and socially judicious action to take," Driver said.

Meanwhile, Gratz still thinks true injustice lies in maintaining race- and gender-based affirmative action.

"This is the opposite of racism," she said. "If they want to take socioeconomic issues into account, they are welcome to do that."

What's next for Gratz and the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative?

"We're looking to end legacy preferences," she said.

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