When the Supreme Court ruled June 23 that state schools could use skin color as a factor in weighing whether to admit or reject applicants, businessman and conservative civil rights activist Ward Connerly was disgusted.
“Civil rights cease to have any meaning according to this incoherent, poorly reasoned decision,” he told HUMAN EVENTS.
Connerly said the court’s decision in Grutter v. Bollinger-which upheld an admissions policy at the University of Michigan Law School that used race as a factor in promoting the admission of blacks and Hispanics-effectively gave each state the power to determine the rights of its citizens based on their race or ethnicity. (The court’s 5-to-4 majority said that for a state government to grant certain races an advantage over others in admission to state educational institutions did not violate the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection of the law.)
“I’d have to look up what my rights are each time I cross a state border,” said Connerly.
Rather than let the court’s ruling stand, Connerly is fighting back by bringing his case directly to the people. The founder and chairman of the California-based American Civil Rights Institute announced at the University of Michigan last Tuesday his plans for a 2004 ballot referendum, the “Michigan Civil Rights Initiative,” that would ban in that state the use of race in state hiring, admission to state schools, and the awarding of public contracts.
Connerly said the Michigan initiative would be based on the principles set forth by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which reiterated the 14th Amendment principle that states could not discriminate on the basis of race.
Against the Establishment
Initiatives like this are nothing new to Connerly, who has a stellar track record in leveraging public opinion against the ruling establishment. In 1996, he successfully pioneered the California Civil Rights Initiative (Proposition 209), which incorporated language nearly identical to the initiative being proposed in Michigan. Prop 209 passed with 54% of the vote. Two years later, Connerly led Washington State voters in support of Initiative 200, which passed with 58% of the vote and dismantled that state’s governmental affirmative action programs.
In Michigan, a state of approximately 11 million people, 317,517 signatures will be needed to place the referendum on the ballot. Connerly is aiming to gather 500,000 starting this September. The cost of doing so will be about $1.5 million.
Many Michiganders are already excited about the idea, Connerly said. “People have already been calling in as a result of the press coverage,” he said. “We’re sorting through everyone, finding out their skills and asking whether they’re interested in serving on a local committee. It’s already starting to unfold.”
Rather than manage the operation himself, Connerly hopes to “pass the baton soon to a local group.”
Opposition will likely be fierce. Butch Hollowell, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, derided Connerly’s plans as “outside efforts to tell Michiganians what to do.”
“We’re not even assuming this will be on the ballot,” Hollowell told HUMAN EVENTS. “It’s not an easy thing to do, and we’re going to scrutinize every signature.
“If it is on the ballot, we will fight it and we will win in a territory that is familiar to us,” he said. “We’ll join a broad coalition of groups to defeat this measure and send Mr. Connerly packing.”
A spokeswoman for Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D.) said that she would also oppose any ballot proposal to end racial preferences. She would not comment, though, on whether Granholm would campaign against it. Its passage over her vocal opposition could prove an embarrassment for the recently elected governor.
Surprisingly, Michigan Republican Chairwoman Betsy DeVos came out against the initiative effort in a statement released last Tuesday. “I fear that this proposed ballot initiative would only serve to further divide people along racial lines, which would be entirely counterproductive,” the statement read.
Connerly put the best face on DeVos’ reaction.
“It bothers me as a Republican that the Party would oppose having people vote on something,” he said. “But as a supporter of this initiative, it’s almost a blessing. It shows that this is not a partisan effort.”
Connerly might not stop his efforts at Michigan. He mentioned that states like Arizona, Utah and Colorado could possibly see referenda as soon as next fall.
“I would love to have a ballot in November ’04 that would amount to a ‘Super Tuesday,'” he said, referring to the date on which several states simultaneously hold their presidential primary elections. “We could show a
critical mass of states that don’t agree with the Court’s decision.”
Contributions to Connerly’s efforts can be sent to:
American Civil Rights Institute
P.O. Box 188350
Sacramento, CA 95818