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Archive for Monday, September 25, 2006

Ballot question raises civil rights issues

September 25, 2006

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A feisty 29-year-old white woman and a pugnacious 67-year-old black man are performing two services this autumn for Michigan and the nation. Their Michigan Civil Rights Initiative is promoting colorblind government. And they are provoking remnants of the civil rights movement, which now is just a defender of a racial spoils system, to demonstrate its decadence, even thuggishness.

In November, Michiganders will vote on this ballot initiative: "A proposal to amend the state constitution to ban affirmative action programs that give preferential treatment to groups or individuals based on their race, gender, color, ethnicity or national origin for public employment, education or contracting purposes." Almost identical measures were passed by referendums in California in 1996 and Washington state in 1998, in similar conditions to those here: They were opposed by both parties, all so-called civil rights organizations, most newspapers and many business leaders. What is different in Michigan is the involvement of a particularly nasty organization and an egregiously political judge.

At age 19, Jennifer Gratz, denied admission to the University of Michigan, fought the university all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. It endorsed her argument that it was an unconstitutional denial of equal protection of the law for the university to add 20 points to the scores of black, Hispanic and Native American applicants. (The maximum score was 150; a perfect 1,600 SAT earned just 12 points.)

Ward Connerly is a California businessman and former member of the University of California Board of Regents. He propelled to victory the measures mandating colorblind government in California and Washington state.

With Gratz as its executive director, and Connerly lending hard-earned expertise, MCRI collected 508,000 signatures, more than ever gathered for a Michigan initiative. In response, some opponents of MCRI have adopted four tactics, none of which involve arguing the merits of racial preferences, and all of which attempt - in the name of "civil rights," of course - to prevent Michiganders from being allowed to vote on MCRI. The tactics have included:

l Pressuring signers of MCRI petitions to say they did not understand what they were signing. Some talk radio stations have broadcast the names of signers, and opponents of MCRI have gone to signers saying, "Did you know you signed a petition against equal opportunity?" Two who recanted their signatures, saying they had signed without reading the measure, are federal judges.

l Violently intimidating the state Board of Canvassers, which certifies that initiatives have qualified for the ballot. The Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) disrupted the board's deliberations, shouting and overturning a table. Video of this can been seen at www.michigancivilrights.org.

l Asking a court to rule that MCRI committed "fraud" because many who signed the petition supposedly were confused - the signers were, presumably, not competent to read and understand the initiative, the full text of which was printed at the top of each petition. A federal judge - Arthur Tarnow, a Clinton appointee - sadly said he could not rule that way because, although he thinks MCRI is a fraud, whites as well as blacks were confused about it, and even if all signatures gathered in majority black cities were invalidated, there still were enough signatures to qualify it for the ballot. So Tarnow contented himself with an extrajudicial smear of Gratz, charging that her "deception" had confused all Michigan voters, regardless of race.

l Michigan ballots are printed by counties, so BAMN says it is asking local officials to assert an extralegal "moral authority" to leave MCRI off the ballot.

Because the plain language of MCRI is appealing, some opponents argue that MCRI would have terrible "unintended consequences." It might, they say, eliminate single-sex public schools (Michigan has none; eight of 3,748 schools have a few voluntary single-sex classes) and breast-cancer screening, or might stop a Department of Natural Resources' program aimed at helping Michigan women become hunters (the initiative concerns only hiring, contracting and public schools).

Given the caliber of opposition arguments, it is no wonder a Detroit News poll published Sept. 15 shows MCRI with an 11-point lead. Gratz says that if her group is outspent "only" five to one - Connerly was outspent that heavily while winning in Washington state - MCRI will become Michigan law.

Anti-MCRI demonstrators chant, "They say Jim Crow, we say hell no." So, the rancid residue of what once was the civil rights movement equates Jim Crow - the system of enforced legal inferiority for blacks - with opposition to treating blacks as wards of government, in need of infantilizing preferences, forever. To such Orwellian thinking, Gratz and Connerly - and soon, perhaps, Michigan - say: Hell no.

- George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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