That's Affirmative

Though it perhaps plays a more positive role than ever before in American popular culture, race has played an unmistakably divisive role this election season. The Republican leadership showed its true colors with the instantly infamous ad it funded in Tennessee playing into the lingering aversion among Southern voters to interracial sex. Americans shouldn't quickly forget that though the ad attacking black congressman and Senate candidate Harold Ford was pulled by many Tennessee TV stations late last month, it wasn't pulled everywhere.

It's received less national press attention, meanwhile, but this year's ballot measure proposing to ban affirmative action in Michigan is similarly racially tinged. At the core of both political campaigns is an appeal to lingering racial biases. In both cases, something significant is riding on the public responses -- and thankfully, in both cases, there are hopeful signs.

As affirmative action's latest and perhaps last battleground, Michigan is particularly important. Ward Connerly, the black businessman and anti-affirmative action activist from California, has spearheaded a campaign here that if successful would end any consideration of race, gender or ethnicity for any reason in hiring and admissions practices by public institutions. If he wins, it could become open season on the policy everywhere, given that the University of Michigan fought longer and harder than any other public institution in recent years to keep affirmative action legal nationwide. But the most notable development that this latest effort has illuminated is the degree to which affirmative action has actually attained mainstream acceptance and legitimacy, not only on the left but among civic, religious, and business leaders -- and even some Republicans.

Connerly's clan had to gather thousands of signatures in favor of the measure to get it on the ballot. Scores who signed it said they were duped. Its advocates wielded a petition that called for ending "discrimination by state government." Many who'd put their names down were in favor of affirmative action, however, and said they'd been tricked into thinking the ballot was for it too. A judge agreed that widespread deception had taken place, but wouldn't take the measure off the ballot. Meanwhile, as Connerly tried to build support and momentum for his cause, he faced rejection from every corner. As was expected, Democratic officials from Governor Jennifer Granholm on down opposed it, as did leaders of the state's large Arab population, its Jewish community, and the United Auto Workers, among many others. But so too did the Republican candidate for governor, Dick DeVos.

Opposing the ban is “an easy position for a Democrat to take,” said DeVos's spokesman John Truscott. He was quick to add that DeVos was not in favor of quotas --
a misleading bogeyman, given that racial quotas have been illegal for nearly 30 years, but one that remains a call to arms for the anti-affirmative action movement. Granholm's spokesman did not immediately return calls seeking comment, but at a September rally in Lansing, she noted that “this is not about quotas, it's about opportunity,” and that affirmative action is “not an issue of black and white." Polls show voters are against the policy when it is cast in racial terms, but as Granholm noted, her teenage daughter recently attended an engineering program for girls at the University of Michigan -- a program that would disappear if the anti-affirmative action ballot measure passes. (It might be noted, too, that perhaps the single biggest beneficiary of affirmative action in academe has been white women.)

But it isn't Granholm or DeVos's support of affirmative action that is so telling. The ultimate sign that it has gone mainstream -- not only in Michigan but nationwide -- is the support it has gained in the business community. Virtually every major company endorses it and hundreds of corporations have supported legal efforts to allow it to continue.

The trajectory of Connerly's past efforts illustrate the shift in outlook. He led the crusade to pass anti-affirmative action measures in California and Washington, but after those initial victories, he was far less successful elsewhere -- as, with little fanfare, major institutions and public figures who could never be confused for being left-wing began to stand up for the policies. In Houston, Texas, a similar ballot initiative was defeated in 1997. In Florida, Governor Jeb Bush called Connerly "divisive" and his efforts there quickly went belly up. Both defeats were signs that, as the business community in particular came to embrace affirmative action, so too did many political leaders on the right.

On the legal front, the state college systems in California, Texas, and Florida lost battles with conservative groups challenging their admission policies in court. But Michigan took its case all the way to the Supreme Court in 2003, and won. Little was made in the press of the lengths the school had gone to defend its policies prior to the Court decision. Michigan spent millions buttressing its case before the Court, providing evidence that diversity creates more open-minded students. The Court ruled that giving a numeric boost to underrepresented minorities according to an explicit scale (as the school did for undergraduates) was unconstitutional, but it reaffirmed the basic constitutionality of using race, gender, and ethnicity as factors in college admissions.

What bodes poorly for Michigan is that black enrollment has dropped in many places where similar ballot measures have been enacted, and Michigan is still a very racially divided state. Moreover, Connerly and his allies have typically opposed percentage plans to replace affirmative action -- measures ensuring that a certain percentage of students from every high school graduating class get into the college of their choice. Michigan is one of the most segregated states in the country, and even the best majority black public schools don't have the facilities that most decent white schools do. The state's high school population is more than 20 percent black, yet the University of Michigan's black student population normally hovers around 7 or 8 percent of the total. If you're against affirmative action, you have to be for public education reform, right? And if you aren't, then what are you for exactly?

Harold Ford himself notes that he was the beneficiary of affirmative action, which he says aided him in gaining admittance to the University of Michigan's law school. Some have attacked him for that admission, in light of revelations that he failed the Tennessee bar exam. Meanwhile, the tangle of knee-jerk stereotypes Ford has faced during this campaign is revealing: His opponent Bob Corker paints himself as an authentic Tennessee everyman. It's Ford who's the smarty-pants, the Washington outsider, Corker suggests. But the contradiction is glaring: Ford as rich, slick, elitist -- and as hypersexual and under-qualified. Such attacks appeal to simply too many differing biases. Indeed, the fact that Ford has touched off such attacks but seems to be surviving and thriving in the face of them is part of what makes his candidacy historic. His race undoubtedly remains an electoral double-edged sword, but many voters will be unable to swallow all of the conflicting attacks and veiled bigotry whole.

Indeed, if these campaigns in Michigan and Tennessee are any indication, there's reason for some cautious optimism concerning the politics of race in America. Ford has closed a huge gap to move neck and neck with Corker in Tennessee, while Michigan's Proposal 2, once way ahead in the polls, is now also a toss up. These are important elections. Voters in Tennessee and Michigan can prove we're moving forward.

Alex P. Kellogg writes for The Detroit Free Press.

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