|That is affirmative
action of which we can be proud, and that is exactly the force of the Michigan Civil
Three years after that executive order, one of the greatest pieces of legislation in our
national history, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was adopted, recognizing the need for
affirmative action to eliminate all racial preferences. "No person in the United
States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin ... be subjected to
discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."
That's Section 601 of the Civil Rights Act. Equal treatment, not preferences. That's
affirmative action as it ought to be.
Does the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative support that? Of course! That is precisely what
the MCRI says: no discrimination by the state, no preferences -- no one to get more, or
less, because of the color of her skin or the national origin of her ancestors.
The term "affirmative action" was later kidnapped by advocates of preference.
Now, as we know, it commonly means exactly what affirmative action was originally intended
to eliminate. The phrase was turned on its head. And the result is that very many people
are understandably confused. Most Michiganders want to be fair, want to be inclusive and
welcoming to all, want to be truly nondiscriminatory -- and we do want affirmative action
in this original and honorable sense. But most Michiganders also despise preference by
The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative simply says that in our state the equal protection
clause of the U.S. Constitution will be taken seriously. In our state, the great Civil
Rights Act of 1964 is to mean just what it says. No ambiguity, no confusion. Here it is:
"The State shall not discriminate against, or 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."
Is that the thrust of the Civil Rights Act, or of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative? It
is the sense of both, of course!
The words are those of the MCRI; they deliberately echo, almost exactly, the words of the
Civil Rights Act. To vote against the MCRI is, in effect, to vote against the Civil Rights
Why would anyone do that? Why oppose such a clear statement of the principle of equal
treatment? The reason can only be that opponents of the MCRI wish to retain racial
preferences, now often hidden. Or they hope to introduce new preferences for some ethnic
groups. They may have good motives -- as many in my university do -- but acts that are
wrong are not made right by good motives.
Our governments, and our universities, are great teachers. They must not be allowed to
discriminate by race or national origin. When that principle is firmly embedded in our
state Constitution by the passage of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, we will all be
CARL COHEN is professor of
philosophy at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and is the author of "Naked
Racial Preference: The Case Against Affirmative Action". Cohen's publication of
data showing Michigan's use of race in student admissions presaged two lawsuits -- Grutter
and Gratz, et al -- challenging the school's racial preferences. The cases
were ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
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