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Nationwide attack on affirmative action: Michigan loss leaves proponents retooling their strategy for future battles.

MICHIGAN VOTERS' SUPPORT Of A CONTROVERSIAL BALLOT issue against affirmative action in areas such as university admissions and government contracting and employment may diminish opportunities for blacks and other minorities in the state. The affirmative action ban, which went into effect Dec. 22, is expected to change admissions practices of public universities and colleges in Michigan. It will also alter how state government agencies hire minorities and award contracts to black- and minority-owned businesses.

The battle over Proposal 2, which was approved by 58% of voters on Nov. 7, was hard fought on the local level but largely overshadowed by the mid-term congressional and gubernatorial races. However, progressive politicians and civil rights leaders such as Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, National Urban League President Marc Morial, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference President Martin Luther King III lent their support to local affirmative action advocates to fight the ban. Even both gubernatorial candidates, Republican Dick DeVos and Democrat Jennifer Granholm, who won the election, opposed the proposal. Now Michigan is the third state to ban affirmative action--joining California and Washington.

The ban effectively rolls back the clock on employment, education, and government contracting, says David Waymire, spokesman for One United Michigan, a coalition of more than 200 organizations in support of affirmative action, including the AFL-CIO, the NAACP, and the American Civil Liberties Union. Waymire is particularly concerned about the loss of government contracting opportunities for minority-owned businesses. "What we've seen happen in California is a major reduction of contractors of color who had been serving those communities," he says. "We're concerned that this sends a message to the best and most talented of all people, especially people of color, that Michigan does not care about discrimination."

NAACP officials also note the damage created through anti-affirmative action initiatives in the states of Washington and California. When affirmative action was banned in California in 1996, admission rates among black freshmen to the University of California at Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Diego plummeted. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the admission rates fell from about 50% for the academic years 1995-1997 to a little more than 20% for the academic years 1998-2001. Also, the percentage of blacks and Hispanics in Berkeley's freshman class fell from 22% to 12% between 1997 and 1998. "This is a setback," NAACP President Bruce S. Gordon said in a statement. "It is clear that we have work to do to convince our fellow citizens that affirmative action has made us stronger as a nation and still has a role to play."

Proponents of the ban assert that Michigan can move forward without the use of race-based programs. "The voters have said that we're ending the era of race preference in the state of Michigan," says Doug Tietz, campaign manager for the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, a group backed by conservative African American businessman Ward Connerly's American Civil Bights Institute, which was successful in getting California to adopt the affirmative action ban. "They're saying we want an optimistic era in which the color of your skin doesn't matter when you're dealing with the government. Now, you're going to be judged by [who] you are and your merit."

The MCRI was formed in 2003 after the Supreme Court upheld the right of universities to consider race in admissions practices as a means of creating a diverse student body. The case involved a lawsuit against the University of Michigan that was initiated by Jennifer Gratz, a white woman who charged that the school's application process was discriminatory. Although the ruling allowed the consideration of race in admissions, the high court struck down a point system used by the school to admit undergraduates. The decision amounted to a partial victory for Gratz, who serves as MCRI's executive director.

Affirmative action proponents have already challenged the ban as unlawful and say they will do so in other states that may consider a similar ban in the future. University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman says she plans to take up the legal fight against the law's passage and will press the courts to allow the school to continue using its diversity-focused admissions program.
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Title Annotation:DIVERSITY WATCH
Author:Gray, Madison J.
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Feb 1, 2007
Previous Article:To choose or not to choose.
Next Article:Power shift: will African Americans benefit from the Democratic takeover of Congress?

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