In a Newsweek essay this week, Ellis Cose argued that while imperfect, affirmative action remains a viable policy option to combat continuing patterns of inequality in American society:
Michigan’s measure, an amendment to the state’s Constitution, was a response to the Supreme Court’s 2003 rulings preserving affirmative action in university admissions in cases involving the University of Michigan and its law school. The court upheld the law school’s admissions process, but struck down the undergraduate admissions process, which awarded minority students extra points towards acceptance.
As a result, the university changed its undergraduate admissions to look at broader criteria like essays and recommendations. Jennifer Gratz, one of the plaintiffs who challenged the university, began the campaign for Proposition 2 along with Ward Connerly, a wealthy black Republican and former University of California regent who helped push through the California initiative 10 years ago.
As the Michigan vote highlighted, affirmative action remains a polarizing issue in American life. Over all, Proposition 2 won a comfortable 58 percent majority, but the divide between male and female voters, and whites and blacks, was far greater.
CNN reported that a survey of 1,955 voters as they left polling places showed that almost two-thirds of the white voters questioned wanted to end affirmative action, compared with only about one in seven black voters. And while almost two-thirds of men supported the proposition, only a slight majority of women did. Michigan is roughly 81 percent white and 14 percent black.
At a news conference, Ms. Coleman said yesterday, “I believe there are serious questions as to whether this initiative is lawful, particularly as it pertains to higher education.”
She added: “I have asked our attorneys for their full and undivided support in defending diversity at the University of Michigan. I will immediately begin exploring legal action concerning this initiative....”
In an interview, Ms. Coleman said the proposition was so vague that without getting further legal clarity, it was difficult to know just how it would affect the university’s outreach and scholarship programs.
Ms. Gratz accused the university of trying to ignore the results of the referendum.
“I think it’s perfectly clear,” she said, “and I think it was perfectly clear to the voters. It’s now unconstitutional in Michigan to use racial preferences in public education, contracting or hiring.”
“The University of Michigan should stop trying to circumvent the law,” she said, “and we will fight to make sure they listen to what the voters have said.”
Affirmative action was never meant to carry the weight society threw on its shoulders. It was never supposed to rescue the poor, enlighten the illiterate or feed the hungry. It was not meant to make up for the inadequacies of a bad K-12 education. It was a modest attempt to give a bit of a boost to a handful of folks from a race of people who had been unfairly held back for centuries. But because the nation lacked the will or knowledge to solve the big problems, we charged affirmative action with doing it all. So though the public often saw it as a powerful force, ruthlessly crushing white male aspirations and elevating hordes of minorities and women, its actual impact was rather small (albeit crucial in certain areas).Michigan voters clearly disagree with this view, that opportunity is available only to "the lucky few." Americans stress equality of opportunity rather than equality of result. Affirmative action programs violate expectations of racially impartial treatment in all areas of life.
The choice America faces is not about ending affirmative action—at some point, as both its critics and defenders agree, the affirmative-action tugboat will run out of steam. The question is whether, before that happens, society will find the will and resources to vanquish the problems that gave rise to it in the first place. No child chooses to be born into poverty with parents who are semiliterate or to live in neighborhoods where the schools are little more than holding pens. The cause of early-childhood education would seem a natural for the proponents of anti-affirmative action initiatives. Yet, for the most part, they seem uninterested in that fight which, if successful, really could render affirmative action irrelevant
In a sane world, the battle in Michigan, and indeed the battle over affirmative action writ large, would offer an opportunity to seriously engage a question the enemies and defenders of affirmative action claim to care about: how do you go about creating a society where all people—not just the lucky few—have the opportunities they deserve? It is a question much broader than the debate over affirmative action. But until we begin to move toward an answer, the debate over affirmative action will continue—even if it is something of a sideshow to what should be the main event.
Cose is right to stress early childhood education, but he also need to address the absence of a culture of achievement among large segments of black America. It's been forty years since the civil rights movement. We don't need more government programs to help blacks. Black advancement will come when blacks themselves tackle the debilitating problems of the breakdown of the black family and the anti-education, oppositional culture of the black nihilist youth.