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Connerly Effort to Ban Race In Admissions is Uphill Battle

Tuesday July 15, 2003

Pro-affirmative action groups cried tears of joy when the Supreme Court upheld diversity as a compelling state interest, and there was a collective sigh of relief signifying that all those years of appeals, debates and rallies on frosty Michigan winter days had come to a glorious end. But it may not be over yet. Ward Connerly is back. 

For Connerly, today is 1978 all over again. Bakke upheld affirmative action, but the maverick dissenting California regent created a grassroots movement for a state ballot initiative to ban race-based admissions in all California schools. The question got on the ballot, and the people voted against affirmative action. 

Connerly’s Sacramento-based American Civil Rights Coalition can appear to be a segregationist juggernaut with its proven record of being unfazed with the Bakke decision and ultimately killing the only successful integration system the University of California ever had. 

“The Court may have allowed racial preferences with their decision, but they did not mandate them,” Connerly said when he announced his plan to begin a signature drive in Michigan. “The people still rule in this country, not robed justices.” 

But while he has a big victory under its belt, must pro-affirmative action and progressive groups worry that history will repeat itself, leaving the Grutter decision as a dead letter? Will Ward Connerly have his way? The situation is much different now for Connerly than it was over two decades ago. It’s 2003 and it’s Michigan, not California, where the political landscape is, as some have put it, bi-polar. 

The Michigan Republican Party is uninterested in helping Connerly’s effort. “We don’t think it’s valuable to keep stirring the pot on this issue,” Greg McNeilly, spokesman for the Michigan Republican Party told the Detroit News. “Public policy should be focused on healing the racial divide, and that’s not something accomplished by Mr. Connerly’s initiative.” 

Michigan Republicans walk a fine line. Because the state is equally divided between right and left, an alienation of minority voters would cost Bush 18 electoral votes in 2004, which could very well hand the Democratic candidate a presidential victory. 

And corporate America, another necessary ally, will probably not get involved. Though big business has always found themselves aligned with conservative financial interests, dozens of Fortune 500 companies filed friend-of-the-court briefs in favor of Michigan’s policies citing a need for a diverse work force. Therefore, it seems unlikely Connerly will woo many corporate firms into his movement. 

Then there’s another problem Connerly faces: those pesky activists. Shanta Driver, the spokesperson for the student interveners in both Grutter and Gratz, said, “Acting now is the key to victory. We can defeat Ward Connerly’s anti-affirmative action ballot proposition before it ever gets off the ground, but only if we act decisively now. Any business, institution, or individual that funds the attack on civil rights will face a consumer boycott and pickets organized by the youth of the new civil rights movement.” 

Is this something Connerly and the ACRC should take seriously? Can student activists really get in his way? 

Yes, in fact, two student groups at the University of Michigan—Students Supporting Affirmative Action and the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action By Any Means Necessary—were instrumental in bringing thousands of students to rally outside the Supreme Court and bringing the issue to the forefront of campus debate for as long as the cases have been going through the appeals process. 

If there is one thing Michigan student activists are not known for, it’s being quiet. So if Connerly wants to go through with this, he’s not going to go without a fight.  

Connerly, once the champion of social conservatives, finds himself friendless in the contemporary affirmative action affair. Perhaps his 15 minutes of political fame are over, sealed with a protest in Ann Arbor this week and Dear John letter from the GOP. 

The possibility for a state ballot initiative banning affirmative action in Michigan is very real, but at this point in time, it’s a pipe dream.  


Ari Paul is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, Mich.