(57) Aim for True Equality by
Ending Preferences

(Detroit Free Press, July 17, 2005)
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Aim for True Equality by Ending Preferences
(July 17, 2005)

Commentary by Carl Cohen in the Detroit Free Press Sunday, July 17, 2005
Reprinted by permission of the author

          If the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative is adopted by the people of Michigan in 2006, our state, and our state universities, will no longer be permitted to discriminate in any way by race or national origin.

          Will the MCRI end affirmative action?  That depends entirely on what one means by affirmative action.   If one means giving special preference to some racial or ethnic groups, as the University of Michigan now does, then of course affirmative action in that sense will be ended.  If one means taking positive steps to ensure that all persons of all races are treated equally, then the MCRI will give strong support to affirmative action.

          For example: Have examinations and other qualifications for employment or admission been distorted by racial preference for whites?  Yes, they have.  Affirmative action is essential to cleanse such instruments of all ethnic bias.  MCRI supports such affirmative action categorically.

Michigan Civil Rights Initiative
Michigan Civil Rights Initiative
P.O. Box 1398
Southgate, Michigan 48195
(734) 730-4842
With the adoption of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, all forms of racial discrimination, including discrimination in housing and lending, would be explicitly prohibited by the Michigan Constitution. That is wholesome affirmative action.
          "Affirmative action" has many meanings and many forms.  Its ambiguity is the reason courts and legislators now avoid the phrase.  But it originally meant, and should still mean, the steps we take to eliminate racial unfairness.  Executive Order No. 10925 (issued by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, and still in effect) obliges every contractor with the federal government "to take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin."  
Michigan Civil Rights Initiative
(Opens new browser window)
That is affirmative action of which we can be proud, and that is exactly the force of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative.

          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 race.

          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 Act.

          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 proud. -30-

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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