Missing on Affirmative Action: Lazy and deceptive rhetoric hides realities in the debate
Thursday November 2
Turn on the radio or TV in Michigan right now, and you hear the same argument, so appealing in its simplicity, being repeated ad nauseam by anti-affirmative action opponents: it's wrong to classify people based on their race; we need to start treating people equally.
The intuitive logic of this stance is apparent, and that's why it so often works for conservatives. But, as the t-shirts sported by many University of Michigan students state, one must realize that race is a factor because racism is still a factor. It is impossible to "treat people equally" when their underlying circumstances are not equal--a problem affirmative action seeks to address. And affirmative action is not simply a race-based initiative; it affects women, the LGBT community, individuals with disabilities, and people from disadvantaged socioeconomic communities.
But millionaire anti-affirmative action activist Ward Connerly and others have been capitalizing on how simple it is to vilify affirmative action, particularly at universities, by ignoring the nuances of admissions policies. With his sponsorship, ballot initiatives to eliminate affirmative action have passed in both California and Washington State. In Michigan right now, Proposal 2 is a ballot initiative introduced by Connerly and Jennifer Gratz. Gratz was the white plaintiff in Gratz v. Bollinger, the 2003 Supreme Court case that, along with Grutter v. Bollinger, famously challenged the University of Michigan's affirmative action admissions policies. In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court upheld the use of race in admissions policies.
What is ironic about Proposal 2 is its official title; the ballot initiative is known as the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, though most civil rights advocates wouldn't be caught dead backing it. Yet it is precisely this name and the misleading campaign to promote it that has allowed the initiative to garner so much support. According to the most recent poll data, Michigan appears to be leaning in favor of passing Proposition 2, with 49 percent likely to vote for the MCRI, and 42 percent likely to vote against it.
What is truly disappointing, however, is the way discussion of the MCRI is framed in the national media. Consider Tuesday's article in The New York Times: the beginning highlights Jennifer Gratz's personal feelings of victimization by the University of Michigan's affirmative action policies without noting that race is not the only aspect of affirmative action. The Times devotes seven paragraphs to Gratz's personal angle on the issue and focuses a majority of the article on the admissions policies at Michigan, while failing to discuss the major policy implications of the MCRI.
Proposition 2 passing isn't just about what will happen to admissions policies at the University of Michigan. It's about the end of housing and lending programs that ensure women and minorities are treated fairly when applying for home loans and mortgages. It's about state programs that help women achieve equal pay. It's about the loss of foundation grants to institutions that demonstrate a diversity component. And it's about the loss of education scholarships and financial aid that help women and minorities gain an equal foothold in society. One United Michigan, supported by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, put together a substantial fact sheet that debunks common myths about the MCRI and affirmative action.
The Supreme Court decision happened four years ago and though people love hearing about a white female "victim" of a selective university admissions process, that's not the real issue here.
The Times had a chance to illuminate the serious policy implications of this controversial initiative. Instead, they gave Gratz a megaphone and framed the Michigan admissions policies as "racial preference." Here's Gratz in the second paragraph:
"We have a horrible history when it comes to race in this country," said Ms. Gratz, 29, a white applicant who was wait-listed 11 years ago at the state's flagship campus here. "But that doesn't make it right to give preference to the son of a black doctor at the expense of a poor student whose parents didn't go to college."
This scenario is a figment of Ms. Gratz's imagination. Prior to the Supreme Court decision, the University of Michigan's admissions policy was based on a point system. It may not have been perfect, but it wasn't quite the racially-motivated system that most conservatives want you to believe. If you look closely, you see that the policy did not favor rich blacks over poor whites. You got the same advantage for being a racial minority as you got for a socio-economically disadvantageous background, but not for both. In other words, you only qualify for points under one of the following categories: race or socioeconomic status or identity (probably LGBT and gender). In this category are also: athletics, men in nursing, and (my personal favorite) Provost's discretion. In other words, Daddy knowing the Provost gives a candidate just as many additional points as if he had been poor and white, poor and African-American, a male in nursing, or poor and Latino.
Unfortunately, this isn't the first time the Times has glossed over the facts and given conservatives an opportunity to distort the affirmative action debate. In 2003, at the height of the Supreme Court cases, Bush was widely quoted denouncing the University of Michigan for using a quota system in its admissions policies. In a January 2003 article, the Times quoted Bush and, three paragraphs later, emphasized his use of the word quota:
"I strongly support diversity of all kinds, including racial diversity in higher education," Mr. Bush said in a nationally televised address. "But the method used by the University of Michigan to achieve this important goal is fundamentally flawed. At their core, the Michigan policies amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students based solely on their race.
In a sign of the careful political calibration of his words, the president repeatedly used the term "quotas" to describe Michigan's admissions policy, a word that inevitably draws strong opposition in polls.
The Times gave a measly two sentences near the end of the article--compared to the first six paragraphs devoted to Bush's claims--to Lee Bollinger, then President of the University of Michigan, to clarify that "Bush 'is simply incorrect' and that 'these are not quotas.'"
Affirmative action is spun as being primarily about race-based quota admissions systems because it's easy, and it gets people angry in a way that athletics or Daddy's connections generally do not. But newspapers owe it to their readers to explain what the real implications of an anti-affirmative action ballot initiative means to individuals of all backgrounds whether they apply for a job, home-buying loan, or college.