Danger: A Policy With No Brains

Susan J. Douglas

Here at the University of Michigan, where the majority of the students and faculty are not right-wing, religious-zealot Republicans pining for the rapture, there has been elation over the election results and the massive, nationwide rejection of Team Bush’s clenched fist around our collective necks. 

Too many women have forgotten what affirmative action meant for us. How many of us hold jobs previously reserved for men?

But it was also a day of great disappointment, as Michigan voters passed the cynically titled Michigan Civil Rights Initiative,” (MCRI) which bans the use of affirmative action by all public institutions in the state. Here we see – in a state that voted Democratic – the ongoing success of conservatives in using race as a wedge issue, and the language of race neutrality” and an end to racial preferences” to do so. Racial resentments, disguised as a totally innocent desire simply to have a level playing field,” are alive and well, especially in a state with the worst economy in the country. 

The drive to pass the MCRI was led by Jennifer Gratz – a white woman who was put on the UM waitlist in 1995 instead of being immediately accepted and has turned her rejection into an 11-year tantrum – and Ward Connerly, architect of anti-affirmative action Prop. 209 in California. This has long been a winning strategy for the right: have women and people of color serve as the poster children for rolling back civil rights. 

The ban passed overwhelmingly – 58 to 42 percent – with support from a whopping 70 percent of white men. Women were more divided, but nonetheless a CNN exit poll found that 59 percent of white women favored the ban, and even 30 percent of non-white men supported it. Those with incomes between $100,000 and $150,000 voted most overwhelmingly of all income groups to end affirmative action. And of all educational levels, those with college degrees endorsed the ban most strongly. What to make of this?

The ones who came out in force against the ban were, not surprisingly, women of color, who know the double whammy of being discriminated against based on race and gender. Interestingly, people 45 and over – those who lived through the civil rights and women’s movements and presumably remember what the workplace and educational institutions were like before – voted most strongly against banning affirmative action, although in the predominantly student precincts around the Ann Arbor campus, the vote was 75 percent against the ban.

The loss is especially poignant here as UM has been one of the nation’s leaders and stalwart defenders of affirmative action. The law school, responding to the civil rights movement and recognizing that its student body was almost entirely white, began its own affirmative action program in 1966. Black student activism in the early 70s also spurred increased recruitment of minority students. A 1988 mandate helped increase minority enrollment from 13.5 percent in 1987 to 25.4 percent in 1996. And, of course, the university famously fought for its admissions policies before the Supreme Court in 2003, winning the right to continue to use race as one of the factors in its admissions decisions.

Here are the distortions and misconceptions that have gotten us to this pass. People like Gratz (who had a good high school GPA and mediocre ACT scores) claim that unqualified people of color take admissions slots away from qualified white students. Studies, however, show that eliminating affirmative action raises white applicants’ chances of admission by only 1.5 to 2 percent, tops. Why? There are so many white kids competing for slots at colleges, especially selective ones, and relatively few students of color, that using affirmative action just doesn’t reduce white students’ admissions chances much at all. 

The racializing of affirmative action, combined with the post-feminist notion that white women have achieved complete equality, has also, seemingly, made too many women forget what affirmative action has meant for us. How many of us in jobs previously reserved for men would have them without affirmative action? And, as UM psychologist Patricia Gurin points out, the state of Michigan ranks 49 out of 50 in pay disparities between men and women; MCRI could make this even worse. And just look at California: there’s been a 60 percent decline in black enrollments at Berkeley since Prop. 209 passed.

At noon on Nov. 8 on The Diag, the central quad on campus, Mary Sue Coleman, president of the UM, addressed an unusually large crowd of about 2,000 people. She defiantly asserted the importance of diversity to the university, and vowed to search for legal challenges to the law, which may be easier said than done. When I first came here to teach, a black student sat in the first row of my lecture, frequently wearing a T-shirt that read Danger: Black Man With a Brain.” He was one of the best students in the class, full of intellectual chutzpah of the best sort. For many of us here, his T-shirt represents a promise. Clearly, still and sadly, for too many white people it represents a threat.

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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.

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