Proposed ban on affirmative action incites fiesty debate
By DAWSON BELL
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
Saturday, June 4, 2005
MACKINAC ISLAND - It might be nice if everyone involved in the conversation about affirmative action could agree on what a proposal likely to appear on Michigan's ballot next year would do.
But, if an early debate on the subject at the Detroit Regional Chamber annual policy conference Saturday morning is any indication, it won't happen.
Panelists disagreed in a prickly 90-minute session on what the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative says, what it is intended to do, and what will happen if it passes.
Carl Cohen, a University of Michigan professor working on the campaign to pass the initiative, said MCRI is "just a straightforward question. Do we or do we not allow the state to discriminate by race and gender."
But Frank Wu, dean of the Wayne State University Law School, said consideration of race in university admissions is necessary to compensate for lingering discrimination. Everyone wants our major institutions to reflect the diversity of our society, Wu said, but "it doesn't happen automatically."
The proposed constitutional amendment would ban the use of race and gender in university admissions, government hiring and contracting. But the panel and an audience generally supportive of affirmative action failed to reach consensus about what has happened in other states where similar plans have been enacted, or what specific Michigan programs would be affected under MCRI.
Cohen said it was important to distinguish between affirmative action programs in private industry and those used in college admissions and government hiring, which he called "state-sponsored discrimination."
Dan Mulhern, Gov. Jennifer Granholm's husband who attended the session, told the audience that that is a false distinction, not reflective of the real world where minorities suffer the effects of pervasive discrimination, much of it the result of unequal distribution of government services.
The MCRI campaign collected more than 500,000 signatures to put the issue before voters. Approval is pending before a state elections panel - and under challenge by a group that supports affirmative action - with a decision expected later this summer.