Affirmative action slips, but will fairness stand?

November 21, 2006|By Ellis Cose

After this month's election, President Bush appeared before a nationally televised audience to acknowledge he had taken a "thumping." Less noticed was the thumping taken by advocates of affirmative action, who could not defeat a Michigan ballot initiative that would prohibit affirmative action in the public sector.

The vote was a strong repudiation of the Michigan establishment. Virtually everyone who mattered opposed the measure; still, it passed (58 to 42 percent), along very racially polarized lines. Michiganders also apparently rejected the argument, forcefully made by the proposal's opponents, that white women had a huge stake in keeping affirmative action alive. Though a majority of women opposed the measure, a majority of white women did not, according to an analysis by Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus. Legal challenges have begun, but if Michigan follows California's pattern, those challenges ultimately will fail.

Precisely because California has already gone down that road, understanding what happened there is fundamental to understanding what may happen in Michigan.

In two areas - minority enrollment in the state's top public universities and contracts awarded to women and minorities - the vote on Proposition 209 was a watershed event. In 1998, the University of California, Berkeley, enrolled fewer than half the number of blacks it had the previous year and nearly half the number of Latinos. At the University of California, Los Angeles, the numbers of incoming "underrepresented" minorities also dropped precipitously.

This summer, UCLA projected its lowest black enrollment (96 prospective students out of nearly 5,000 freshmen) in more than three decades. Partly in response, UCLA's academic senate approved a "holistic" admissions process, meaning the university would focus on the whole student - not just academics - and hope for a more diverse student body.

The impact on small entrepreneurs was even more striking. A number of minority-owned firms that once thrived have vanished, said Frederick Jordan, founder of F.E. Jordan Associates, a civil and environmental engineering firm in the San Francisco area. Before the proposition's passage, it was easy to find minority firms to do work on major transportation projects such as repairs to the Bay Bridge, said Jordan, who is also a past president of the San Francisco African American Chamber of Commerce. But "all the firms were wiped out. In 1996 in San Francisco I could've produced 10 or 15 African-American firms that could do any kind of work. Today, I can't find anybody, zero, zero ... for working on transportation projects."

A new study released by the Discrimination Research Center confirmed Mr. Jordan's assessment. According to the center's analysis, most minority enterprises that once sought business from the California Department of Transportation no longer exist. Only one-third of those certified to do business with the state in 1996 are still in operation, the center reported. The study also noted that contracts awarded to minority businesses by Caltrans had dropped more than 50 percent since passage of Proposition 209.

Before the proposition's passage, its proponents were fond of arguing that minority students would benefit because they would finally be free of the "stigma" associated with affirmative action. California's experience seems to say that assumption is not necessarily true - at least not yet. For example, Kimberly Griffin, a black UCLA graduate student in higher education, says she routinely encounters students who assume that she met some lower standard to get in.

It is also far from clear, as proponents of Proposition 209 insisted would be the case, that barring consideration of race results in a better match between university and student. Or that it improves graduation rates, since students who got into school on the basis of "merit," as opposed to affirmative action, supposedly would be more likely to succeed. On that question the evidence seems mixed at best.

Despite the California experience, few people involved in the early debates seem much interested in revising their old assumptions.

In a sane world, the battle in Michigan, and indeed the larger battle over affirmative action, would offer an opportunity to seriously engage a question the enemies and defenders of affirmative action claim to care about: How do you go about creating a society where all people - not just the lucky few - have the opportunities they deserve?

It is a question much broader than the debate over affirmative action. But until we begin to move toward an answer, that debate will continue - even if it is something of a sideshow to what should be the main event.

Ellis Cose is a contributing editor and columnist for Newsweek. This article is adapted from "Killing Affirmative Action: Would ending it really result in a better, more perfect, Union," which can be found in full at His e-mail is

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