Time travel, long a staple of science fiction, has so far amounted to nothing more than a fantasy. But anyone interested in paying a visit to the past may soon get the chance. On Nov. 7, voters in Michigan will decide on a ballot initiative banning racial preferences in the public sector, and if it passes, opponents say it will put the state back into the Dark Ages.
Proposal 2 represents a reaction to the University of Michigan’s use of racial double standards in selecting its students. In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that the preferences used in undergraduate admissions were unconstitutional, but those used for law school admissions were not. The court said it was okay to favor minority applicants — and discriminate against whites — in order to promote diversity, as long as the school wasn’t too blatant about it.
The outcome didn’t satisfy losing litigant Jennifer Gratz, who was rejected despite credentials that would have virtually assured admission to a black or Hispanic applicant. She organized a campaign to put affirmative action to a referendum. The resulting measure, similar to one passed in California in 1996, would amend the state constitution to ban the use of racial or gender preferences by public universities and government agencies.
If it passes, no one would be penalized or rewarded for their skin color or sex. That was the point of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Today, though, color-blind policies are denounced as a form of oppression.
The critics foresee the direst of consequences if Proposal 2 becomes law. The Michigan Catholic Conference invokes memories of Jim Crow while warning that the measure would kill or cripple "any program in Michigan that aims to create access for women and minorities." The University of Michigan says that it would no longer be able to "pursue the educational benefits of a diverse student body."
But Proposal 2 does not deny access to anyone — it merely mandates that everyone be assessed according to criteria (grades, test scores, personal accomplishments, and so on) other than race or sex. The measure also wouldn’t prevent universities from promoting diversity by favoring students from poor families, or children who have overcome special challenges, or kids from high schools where few graduates go on to college.
At the University of California, Berkeley and UCLA, California’s most selective state schools, the percentage of students qualifying for need-based federal aid has risen sharply since 1996. In socioeconomic terms, those campuses have become more diverse, not less. But in Michigan, the concept of diversity begins and ends with race.
The claim that women would suffer without special help in college admissions is a particularly outlandish invention. At Berkeley and UCLA, women increased their numbers after gender-based preferences were scrapped.
There is not much doubt that Proposal 2 would reduce the number of black and Latino students at the University of Michigan, the flagship public institution. But in California, the top schools have not become replicas of Ole Miss, circa 1960. The biggest gainer has been another racial minority — Asian-Americans.
Nor have African-Americans and Hispanics been exiled from higher education. The total number of blacks at all University of California campuses has fallen only slightly, and Hispanic numbers have risen substantially. The chief difference is that many (though certainly not all) have been shifted from the most selective state schools to somewhat less selective ones.
Are these students worse off for not getting into Berkeley or UCLA? Quite the contrary. In the old days, black and Hispanic students generally got worse grades and flunked out at much higher rates than whites and Asian-Americans. But that is changing.
At the University of California at San Diego, the state’s third-most selective, an internal report found "no substantial GPA differences based on race/ethnicity." The four-year graduation rate for African-Americans at UCSD has jumped by 44 percent in the last decade.
Which is better — being a UCLA dropout or a UCSD graduate? Attending a more prestigious school is valuable only if you get a degree, which far too many minority students did not in the era of racial favoritism. By putting many of these students in schools whose academic standards they couldn’t meet, affirmative action set them up for failure.
Racial preferences, always a clear detriment to whites and Asian-Americans, have now been exposed as a false friend to those they are supposed to help. Michigan will have a better future if its voters abandon this relic of the past.