Midterm Election Silver Lining

Michigan's affirmative action vote may signal national trend

While Election Day dealt a blow to Republican power in Washington, it breathed new life into a core conservative issue: equal opportunity. The stunning victory of Michigan’s Proposal 2 – the ballot initiative banning racial preferences in government employment, education and contracts – has not commanded national headlines. Yet it will potentially trigger similar initiatives in other states and revive the cause of a colorblind society, proving one of this election’s most momentous developments.

Jennifer Gratz, director of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI) which spearheaded the campaign, says Proposition 2’s resounding victory is “a national wakeup call.” Michigan’s win also comes at the 10-year anniversary of a similar initiative in California, which has experienced none of the trauma predicted by opponents, but has benefited all groups in expected – and unexpected – ways.

Proposition 2’s 16-point landslide is especially amazing given the Goliath-sized machinery it confronted in Michigan. Proposition 2 was a political orphan whose principal author, Ward Connerly – a black businessman who had successfully spearheaded the California effort in 1996 – was shunned by the entire political, business, academic and media establishment in Michigan.

That the initiative overcame such formidable opposition demonstrates the grass-roots power of the issue – as well as the disconnect of political elites. “Americans still take seriously the ideal of equal opportunity, even if their leaders don’t,” notes MCRI’s Miss Gratz, who sued the University in Michigan right up to the Supreme Court when the university passed her over in favor of less qualified minority candidates.

Mr. Connerly now awaits the verdict of the Supreme Court in two related cases from Seattle, Washington and Louisville challenging school districts that assign students to schools with an eye toward maintaining a racial balance. Should the Supreme Court show a willingness to revisit its U-M ruling allowing public universities to give race some consideration in admissions, Mr. Connerly maintains he would re-evaluate the ballot route. If not, he is considering two dozen states including Oregon, Missouri and Illinois that might be good candidates for similar initiatives.

Mr. Connerly’s crusade should be helped by the fact that, a decade after California passed Proposition 209 and embraced race-neutral policies, minority progress has advanced – not stopped – in that state.

Black and Hispanic admissions in elite colleges like UC Berkeley and UCLA have dropped, to be sure. But they have grown in less elite colleges where minorities are more able to compete. UC-Riverside and UC-Santa Cruz, for example, have seen significant jumps in black enrollment, with Riverside numbers alone up 240 percent. More importantly, minority graduation rates have grown.

At UC-San Diego, where minority admissions dropped somewhat after Proposition 209, graduation rates have nearly doubled for blacks and Hispanics. At the same time, white and Asian graduation rates have remained the same. “This is almost certainly due largely to the reduction of preferences,” notes UCLA law professor Richard Sander, a longtime civil rights activist who has studied affirmative action in higher ed. “The five and six-year grad rates for minorities get pretty close to the white rates [within five points], which of course means that differences in academic performance have also narrowed a lot.” Compare this to the University of Michigan where minority grad rates lag by 17 points.

“If we looked at actual BAs produced, rather than entering freshmen, the post-209 numbers for blacks and Hispanics would look even better,” adds Mr. Sander. This should be of interest to American corporations — many of whom have jumped on the preferences bandwagon – who worry that affirmative action bans cost them talent. In fact, as California vividly illustrates, racial preferences have been a barrier to qualified graduates.

Another positive result of Proposition 209 has been its effect on academic outreach to the poor. Freed of the shackles of race-driven admissions, a study by the Pacific Legal Foundation’s Eryn Hadley found elite schools have refocused resources on preparing “K-12 students for college life. The UC system now offers many race-neutral programs for individual students who are disadvantaged or attend low performing schools.”

Furthermore, the seats vacated by minorities in Berkeley and UCLA did not result in lily white campuses, as Proposition 209’s opponents had predicted. Rather, the biggest portion went to Asian-Americans.

It is impossible to predict all the adjustments that race-neutral policies might trigger in each state Mr. Connerly targets. In Michigan, for instance, along with Asians, one might expect Arab American numbers to rise at U-M, given that the state is home to one of the largest Arab populations outside the Middle East.

But for now the political elites of both parties face this stark choice: They can continue to scoff at the cause of racial neutrality and alienate the grass-roots – or do an about-turn and reconnect with voters. Either way, Proposition 2’s success has shown, the movement for a colorblind society will march forward.

Henry Payne is a free-lance writer and an editorial cartoonist at the Detroit News. Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at the Reason Foundation. An archive of her work is here and Reason’s education research and commentary is here.