Reacting swiftly to the Supreme Court’s recent decisions affirming the use of racial preferences in university admissions, noted civil-rights activist Ward Connerly has launched a campaign for a ballot initiative to end racial preferences in Michigan.

Ward Connerly

“I cannot describe to you the anger and humiliation that fills me as a black man to be viewed with such misplaced pity and misguided patronization,” he said in a speech announcing the campaign.

Connerly, chairman of the American Civil Rights Coalition, led similar efforts in California in 1996 and Washington state in 1998, both to success.

But in a controversial move, the Michigan Republican Party acted with equal speed to distance itself from Connerly’s initiative and the plaintiffs involved.

Connerly announced his Michigan Civil Rights Initiative campaign Tuesday at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor at a press conference hosted by the Michigan Review, an undergraduate publication.

The university was chosen as the location because of its relation to the recent Supreme Court decision. In 1997, the Center for Individual Rights launched a pair of lawsuits – Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger – challenging race-based admissions at the University of Michigan’s Law School and College of Literature, Science, and the Arts respectively.

Plaintiff Jennifer Gratz

The plaintiffs, despite outstanding academic records, were wait-listed and rejected from the University of Michigan. The CIR labeled them victims of affirmative action, and the two cases, dubbed “Affirmative Action’s Alamo” by Time Magazine, have come to stand for the national debate over racial preferences in university admissions.

On June 23, the Supreme Court struck down one practice of Michigan’s undergraduate admissions system, which awarded 20 points to minority applicants in the admissions process – out of a possible 150 – based solely on their skin color. In the Grutter case, the court, however, upheld the University of Michigan’s law school admissions policy which assigns no numerical value to an application based on his or her race, but weighs race significantly in the admissions process.

‘Equal with regard to race’

The narrowness of the 5-4 vote in Grutter, upholding affirmative action, and national polls indicating a majority of Americans oppose racial preferences of any kind, have given supporters pause even as they celebrate the decision.

And then there’s Ward Connerly.

On Tuesday, the civil-rights leader delivered a passionate speech branding the recent Supreme Court ruling to allow racial preferences as “unjust” and a patronizing abrogation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

“We established as law the ‘civil right’ of every person in this dear country of ours to be treated as an equal without regard to race, color or national origin,” Connerly said.

He warned that allowing each university to “discriminate on the basis of race in order to create a ‘critical mass’ based on race” was a violation of equal treatment guaranteed by law.

“To the justices of the court, I say, respectfully, that we will not wait 25 years for the principle of equal treatment to be restored,” he said, referring to Justice Sandra Day O’Conner’s concurring majority opinion.

Connerly said the American people “are quite content with the old civil-rights movement which embraced equal treatment under the law, not preferences based on race.”

“The court may have allowed racial preferences with their decision, but they did not mandate them,” he added. “The people still rule in this country, not robed justices. If the people want color-blindness and equality under the law, all they have to do is stand up and say so. I’m sure that they will – and we’re going to make sure everybody hears them loud and clear.”

In conjunction with the American Civil Rights Coalition, the campaign will seek to place on the November 2004 ballot what will be commonly known as the “Michigan Civil Rights Act.” The initiative will be patterned after the 1964 Civil Rights Act and California’s Proposition 209 to prohibit discrimination and preferences in public education, public employment and public contracting.

Referring to the Supreme Court decision, Connerly said, “On June 23rd of this year, the highest court in the land, with a stroke of the pen, essentially said, there is nothing sacred about our Declaration of Independence. About the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, the court declared: ‘The Equal Protection Clause does not prohibit the law school’s narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.'”

Connerly called the decision “the whim of five people.”

“Do we not believe in the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment?” he asked. “Are we not obligated to comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Do we have so little confidence in the American spirit and in yet unborn Americans of African and Mexican descent that we consign them to another generation of presumed inadequacy? Is it fair to say to a black parent: Your child to be born eight years from now will still need a preference when he or she applies to college in the year 2028?”

In the weeks ahead, the group will organize a local committee to serve as sponsor of the initiative, recruit a local volunteer and paid staff and start a fundraising campaign.

“We will develop a cadre of supporters who can carry our message of equal treatment for all and preferences for none throughout the state of Michigan,” said Connerly.

The signature-gathering process is slated to begin no later than Sept. 1 and conclude by early next year.

Connerly was joined Tuesday by Tom Wood, coauthor of Proposition 209, Valery Pech, plaintiff in the Adarand case and the Center for Individual Rights plaintiffs Jennifer Gratz and Barbara Grutter.

Victims of affirmative action?

In the fall of 1994, high school senior Jennifer Gratz applied to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Despite her combined score of 25 on the ACT (83rd percentile), a 3.765 GPA and experience as a math tutor, athlete, cheerleader and class congress representative, she was wait-listed and eventually rejected from UM Ann Arbor, the flagship school of the University of Michigan system.

After enrolling in UM Dearborn to study math, Gratz sued the University of Michigan on the grounds that its affirmative action system had discriminated against her. Gratz graduated in May 1999 and now works as a training specialist for a software company.

Plaintiff Barbara Grutter

Plaintiff Barbara Grutter earned a B.S. with high honors from Michigan State University, where she maintained a 3.81 GPA. She graduated in 1978 and scored 161 on her LSAT, but she postponed law school for a career as a health-care consultant and manager. In 1986, she founded a successful health-care information firm, and in 1996, at age 43, she applied to the UM law school. Grutter was wait-listed and eventually rejected, allegedly unable to find admittance to another law school due to her rejection. She since has gone back to her business and raising two children.

GOP doesn’t want to ‘divide’

When Grutter and Gratz, both Caucasian women, spoke from the podium at Tuesday’s press conference, they were loudly booed by pro-affirmative action activists. Activists interrupted the proceedings numerous times, and, according to news reports, campus police had to get involved to quell the disruption.

Michigan GOP chair Betsy DeVos

Now the launch is getting soundly booed by the Michigan GOP as well, which is trying to leave Connerly and crew out in the cold. Betsy DeVos, chair of the Michigan Republican Party issued a statement saying, “The Supreme Court wisely affirmed and validated the importance of college admissions based on merit when it struck down the University of Michigan’s race-based point system.”

She added, “I fear that this proposed ballot initiative would only serve to further divide people along racial lines which would be entirely counter-productive.”

Likewise, Michigan GOP Executive Director Greg McNeilly told the Detroit News that Republican leaders want to “move on to other important issues.”

Now political analysts are asking, counter-productive to whom and for what reason? Is the Michigan GOP speaking on the basis of firmly held principle or hypocritical expediency?

Bill Ballenger, political analyst with Inside Michigan Politics, believes the Republicans are pragmatists.

He says Michigan Republican leaders are afraid Connerly’s effort would galvanize African-American Democrats to surge to the polls in 2004 when President George W. Bush is up for re-election.

“[The Michigan GOP] doesn’t want that. They don’t want those people voting,” Ballenger told WND. “There will be other races on those ballots and those votes wouldn’t be going to Republicans.”

Ballenger compares the situation to when Michigan had the voucher issue on the ballot in 2000.

“Governor Engler came out and made statements suggesting he supported it, then he came out and opposed it using gobbledygook language,” Ballenger said. ‘The bottom line was this was the Bush v. Gore year and Spencer Abraham was up for re-election. Engler didn’t want to do anything to galvanize the public-school lobby to get the vote out, because they wouldn’t be voting for Republicans.”

Ballenger contended “affirmative action is as popular as a skunk at a wedding. Most people are in favor of the plaintiffs.”

“If a snap special election were to be held tomorrow, affirmative action would go down big time,” he said. ‘”But there isn’t going to be a snap election, and this measure won’t be voted on tomorrow.”

The analyst estimates the cost of getting the measure on the ballot is close to $500,000, but adds, in the meantime, Democratic Party groups likely will raise more money and run TV ads opposing the initiative.

“The issue can change dramatically in that time, even with the required signatures,” Ballenger said. “The establishment – PACs, corporations, interest groups and Democrats – will be working to beat it.”

He adds there probably will be “major spokesmen” on the side of affirmative action, but with the Michigan GOP distancing itself from Connerly and the plaintiffs, it will be harder for their campaign to recruit such voices.

Ballenger says the Republican White House has not helped Connerly’s cause.

On Jan. 16, the Bush administration filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court outlining its opposition to the University of Michigan’s affirmative action program.

President Bush had announced his opposition to the program, calling it “fundamentally flawed.”

But when the Supreme Court voted to uphold affirmative action, Ballenger says, “The White House ran for the hills. They’re being very equivocal.”

Court ruling a ‘victory’

Jeff Stormo, director of policy research and communications for the Michigan GOP, rejected Ballenger’s assertion that Republicans are afraid Connerly’s campaign will bring out Democrat voters.

“We hope that 100 percent of those eligible to vote turn out in 2004,” he told WND. “A presidential election always draws more voters regardless of the initiatives on the ballot.”

When asked what the Michigan GOP thought of President Bush’s previous stance on affirmative action, Stormo told WND they had supported Bush, adding, “He did what he thought was the right thing.”

Stormo was quick to label the Supreme Court ruling a “victory,” but when reminded the ruling was widely held as preserving affirmative action in university admissions, Stormo said, “There’s enough there for everyone to claim a victory.”

WND asked Stormo why the Michigan GOP opposes allowing voters to decide the issue for themselves.

“It’s likely to be more divisive than necessary,” he said, “We don’t need to do that now, we need to move toward policies that would result in more unity … like the ‘No Child Left Behind’ plan.”

Other GOP leaders are giving a similar response.

WND also asked Stormo whether the GOP’s withdrawal of support from Connerly, one of the top black Republican activists in the nation and a big fundraiser, would create division inside the GOP itself.

“No,” he replied.

The battle for corporate campaign cash also could be a factor motivating the GOP, according to the Detroit News. Dozens of corporations filed briefs in support of the University of Michigan’s policies and those same businesses typically are major donors to Republicans, effective putting Republicans “in a box.”

“The Republican Party has given up the issue as a way of enticing minorities into the party,” Debbie Schlussel, a Southfield, Mich., attorney and conservative Internet columnist, told the Detroit paper.

Meanwhile, Connerly says the civil-rights crusade will not end with the state of Michigan, as the group is exploring the feasibility of initiatives in other states, cities and counties.

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