The Shifting Sands Of Preference Justification

You should make an effort now to recall — because presently it may become much more difficult to do so — that in Grutter the Supremes held that the need for “diversity” in higher education was compelling enough to justify some racial discrimination in order to produce it.

This justification seems to be largely forgotten already in the debate that is heating up in Michigan over the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, a ballot initiative that would add to the state constitution a requirement that the state

shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.

Both interestingly and revealingly, the arguments of the preferentialists who are frantically trying to keep this matter off the ballot in Michigan make very little reference to “diversity.” As I discussed here, the web site of Citizens For A United Michigan presents almost no arguments of any kind. All it does is reprint (usually without a date) or link to a dozen or so supportive newspaper articles or editorials, but these are instructive.

The first article referenced, for example, is from the Bay City Times, which opposes MCRI because “[d]isadvantaged blacks and other minorities do need a leg up to get a good education and a good job.” [P.S. This formulation of course fudges the issue, since race preferences are not limited to the “disadvantaged.” Preferentialists seem incapable, or at least unwilling, to discuss preferences in an honest and above-board manner.]

Similarly, an article from the Flint Journal was listed. Its author had been deeply ambivalent about MCRI … until he or she saw a Ku Klux Klan symbol in a window, which led to an epiphany:

you are reminded that not only is subtle racism still rearing its ugly head, but that blatant racism is still alive and kicking in our suburbs. And you know – suddenly, depressingly – that we still have a long way to go and that affirmative action is needed just as much today as it ever has been.”

An article was linked from the Detroit Free Press that prominently quoted Maranda Massie, “an attorney and activist” associated with BAMN, who said it is important to show “deep and broad opposition to Ward Connerly’s attempt to resegregate the state of Michigan … and abrogate the United States Supreme Court opinion in the U-M case.” In BAMN’s fevered imagination, an enforced end to racial discrimination would result in “resegregation.” After MCRI, perhaps BAMN should lead a crusade to repeal the Civil Rights Act and the 14th Amendment.

A press release put out by CUM include quotes from officials of a number of organizations opposing MCRI, none of which stressed “diversity.” Some excerpts:

Sr. Monica Kostielney, R.S.M, president and CEO, Michigan Catholic Conference, said religious groups around the state will be opposing the proposed amendment. “We know that injustice is an unfortunate fact of American life. The proposal that is being circulated today will increase racism, not eliminate it.”

Heaster Wheeler, executive director of the Detroit Branch NAACP, said his organization and others will ensure that the state’s African American community is not fooled by the effort to prevent the state from addressing racism.


“This proposal will affect many aspects of Michigan life, with unintended consequences,” said David Hecker, president of the Michigan Federation of Teachers and School Related Personal, representing the Michigan State AFL-CIO. “How will it affect scholarships given by ethnic groups around the state? How will it affect the Department of Military Affairs? How will it affect schools, police and fire departments that are trying to encourage increased participation by all ethnic groups?


The National Association of Women Business Owners-Greater Detroit Chapter, will oppose the legislation because it will hurt women-owned businesses struggling to get a foothold in government contracting. “This amendment prevents local governments from recognizing the need to encourage women-owned businesses when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars,” said Christina Roehl, president of NAWBO-GDC.

Reasonable people, of course, can believe all of these things, and it is not as though these concerns are irrelevant to a debate over racial preference. But it is nevertheless striking how little they have to do with the interest in “diversity” that provided the grounds for the Supremes’ acceptance of racial preference. Moreover, given the widespread support for preferences among the elites in corporate America, the universities, the media, and the military, exactly where is current and ongoing discrimination coming from? These arguments make one wonder whether “discrimination,” as usually understood, has any more to do with the current demand for the continuation of preferences than does “diversity.”

The quaintest argument against MCRI was certainly given by Brig. Gen. Michael Rice (ret.), the executive director of CUM, in its press release. He noted that state law already “outlaws quotas, and that Michigan’s Constitution today says no person should be discriminated against ‘because of religion, race, color or national origin.'” He did not explain how the state’s favoring certain races over others was consistent with those provisions.

Perhaps the clearest example of the confusion that suffuses the debate over equality and preferences these days was provided, unwittingly, by an editorial in the Detroit News that was also linked on the CUM web site.

[T]hough America has made much progress in providing equal opportunity to people of all races, that mission still has a long way to go. It is not enough to simply say, after 300 years of discrimination and racism, that we are now going to offer everyone an equal opportunity.

A more active approach is needed to get everyone to the same starting point. Affirmative action provides an avenue to reach the goal of assuring America does not have a permanent racial underclass.

I think these two brief paragraphs are fascinating. First comes the assertion that we have “made much progress in providing equal opportunity,” which sounds like equal opportunity is a worthy goal. But then comes the zinger that equal opportunity “is not enough.” So, “much progress” doesn’t really matter, since even if we had completely succeeded in providing equal opportunity we would still have “a long way to go.”

But to where? Well, to “a more active approach.” But approach to what? To getting everyone “to the same starting point.” But that sounds awfully much like equal opportunity, for presumably the “starting point” is to some sort of race. But the problem with this is that races have winners and losers. What good does it do to get everyone to the same “starting point” if they are not at the same point at the end of the road? And besides, how do preferences to some get everyone to the same starting point anyway?

It would be different if preferentialists argued for, say, preferences in admission to college but not to graduate or professional schools, or to college and professional schools but not to employment, or to employment but not to promotion, etc., etc. But they don’t. The preferences they are pushing are seemingly unending, both over time — without them everyone would never be at the same starting point — and during the duration of individual careers, and even (see above, re time) unto the generations that will inherit them.

I think it’s time that preferentialists, in Michigan and elsewhere, and political candidates everywhere should be forced to explain what sort of equal opportunity they favor, and how much racial discrimination over how long a period of time they think will be necessary to achieve it.

Say What? (3)

  1. SDN February 4, 2004 at 10:56 pm | | Reply

    All I know is that when some of my co-workers and I discussed forming a company to go after some DoD IT business, the first thing that came up was which of our spouses could serve as CEO to get the most 8A Set Aside money…..wouldn’t actually be anything more than a token, you understand….

  2. Sam Barnes February 5, 2004 at 2:51 pm | | Reply

    I hate to tangent here, but could the Citizens for a United Michigan please, PLEASE find another acronym? I realize that it is somewhat juvenile of me, but I find the abbreviation incredibly distracting. It’s even worse than the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Sorry. [/rant]

  3. Claire February 6, 2004 at 1:34 pm | | Reply

    Actually, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit to find that the acronym was quite deliberate, at least on somebody’s part. It seems like typical juvenile potty humor to me, and I see a lot more of that from the far left than the far right.

Say What?