City Journal

Harry Stein
Now the GOP Is For Affirmative Action?
Abandoning principle may not even be smart politics.
Autumn 2006

Ten years ago, the historic passage of California’s Proposition 209 banning racial preferences in public contracting and university admissions seemed to promise that colorblind government would soon prevail nationwide. Today, though, affirmative action remains on the books almost everywhere in America. Those who’ve kept preferences alive include the usual coalition of left-wing activists, a strongly pro-affirmative-action media, business and civic groups anxious to avoid charges of racism, and, hardly least, judges who haven’t hesitated to give their own political views the force of law. But what’s arguably hurt the anti-preferences drive most has been the desertion of its formerly best ally: the Republican Party.

Nowhere has this Republican desertion been starker than in Michigan, where an almost exact replica of Prop. 209, mandating that the state “shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color or ethnicity, or national origin” is on this fall’s ballot. Led by its candidates for governor and U.S. Senator, the state GOP has emphatically distanced itself from the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative.

Not only has GOP opposition enabled pro-affirmative-action forces to cast those fighting quotas as ideological pariahs, so far out of the mainstream (and, by implication, so tainted by racist bigotry) that not even Republicans want anything to do with them; it also has severely hampered the MCRI’s fund-raising efforts, with many would-be contributors reluctant to cross the party leadership. “I can’t tell you how many people have whispered in my ear, ‘I’m with you, but I can’t say anything publicly,’ ” confides a frustrated Jennifer Gratz, the MCRI’s executive director and the former lead plaintiff in a landmark affirmative-action lawsuit against the University of Michigan. “There’s just this fear of standing up and doing the right thing.”

Even more disheartening, the Republican backtracking on preferences in Michigan reflects a quiet but steady shift in the national party, too, with the Bush administration undercutting affirmative-action foes—longtime GOP supporters—by embracing the “diversity” mantra that liberals so fervently preach.

The contrast with the GOP’s principled recent past is striking. At his first press conference after assuming office in 1981, President Ronald Reagan noted that many affirmative-action programs had become rigid quotas, adding: “I’m old enough to remember when quotas existed in the U.S. for the purpose of discrimination, and I don’t want to see that happen again.” Reagan’s assistant attorney general for civil rights, the combative William Bradford Reynolds, echoed the anti-preferences view, judging affirmative action “demeaning because it says people are going to get ahead not because of what they can do but because of race.” While federal bureaucrats and congressional Democrats often frustrated the Reagan administration’s efforts to curb quotas, the president’s position was never in doubt, and it set the tone for the party.

Black California businessman Ward Connerly was among the many drawn to the GOP by the force of Reagan’s personality and straightforward commitment to principle, changing his party registration the very day after he met then-governor Reagan in 1969. Twenty-seven years later, after discovering as a trustee of the University of California system the extent to which skin color determined admission to top campuses like UCLA and Berkeley, he was leading the fight for Prop. 209. Then, as now, the viciousness of the opposition (headed by future Kerry campaign guru Bob Shrum) knew no bounds. Television ads attacking the measure depicted cross burnings and police dogs, seeking to link anti-preferences forces with the ugliest anti-integration backlash of the civil rights era; Prop. 209 foes at Cal State Northridge actually invited KKK leader David Duke to campus to speak on behalf of the measure.

But support for Prop. 209 was broad and deep, and included many influential figures in business and politics. Most notably, its chief sponsor, Republican governor Pete Wilson, effectively countered the other side’s race-baiting by arguing that those fighting to make race a nonfactor in government decision making were abiding by the civil rights crusade’s true values. “It is time for those who have resisted Prop. 209 to acknowledge that equal rights under law, not special preferences, is the law of the land,” he declared. “A measure that eliminates any form of discrimination based on race and gender violates no one’s constitutional rights.”

In the end, 209 passed comfortably, with 54 percent of the vote. Republican Party support was “vital,” recalls Connerly. “They provided us with a lot of foot soldiers and, even more essential, a critical mass of support—because nobody ever likes to be left standing alone, especially when it comes to race.”

The same scenario played out in Washington State in 1998, where Connerly led the fight for that state’s anti-preferences measure, I-200. While some Republican moderates, including former governor Dan Evans, opposed the initiative, the conservative-controlled state GOP enthusiastically endorsed it; and though foes outspent supporters by nearly three to one—with such liberal-leaning corporate Goliaths as Eddie Bauer, Microsoft, and Starbucks contributing heavily to the “No on 200” campaign—the initiative passed by a whopping 58 to 42 percent. The margin is even more impressive when examined in its particulars. According to exit polls, 80 percent of Republicans supported I-200, but so did 62 percent of independents and 41 percent of Democrats. In fact, Democratic senator Patty Murray was one of the measure’s most vocal critics, and 43 percent of her supporters voted for it.

There’s little evidence of any change in public attitudes about racial preferences since. The Republican rank and file remains especially united: a poll of Michigan GOP voters earlier this year, for instance, showed 78 percent backing the MCRI. So the party’s turnabout on the issue can seem bewildering.

The shift on preferences clearly involves naked political calculation. With a mere 8 percent of blacks voting GOP in 2004, party leaders have made no secret of their eagerness to try to splinter the most reliable of Democratic voting blocs. Over the last year and a half, party chairman Ken Mehlman has appeared before numerous black audiences, preaching the virtues of Republicanism. As the New York Times noted in a lengthy and laudatory piece on Mehlman in July, the GOP chairman believes that “Republican advocacy of economic policies that would give more power to individuals rather than to government—like health saving accounts—would appeal to middle-class black voters as much as it would to whites.”

All well and good. But as the Times (approvingly) points out, Mehlman’s outreach agenda hardly ends there. He has also repeatedly “apologized for what he described as the racially polarized politics of some Republicans over the past 25 years” and for “what civil rights leaders view as decades of racial politics practiced or countenanced by Republicans. One example they point to is the first President Bush’s use of the escape of Willie Horton, a black convicted murderer, to portray his Democratic opponent in the 1988 election, Michael S. Dukakis, as soft on crime.”

That Republicans have long cynically exploited race is a given for the Times’s “civil rights leaders” and liberals in general. But that the Republican chairman now accepts such a proposition is astonishing. In fact, it’s easy to make the case that, in recent years, the civil rights establishment and its Democratic allies have been the true cynics—and effective ones—in playing the race card to achieve electoral and policy ends. One can argue that the Horton ad, tough as it was, made a legitimate point, highlighting a significant Dukakis policy failure. But no such claim would be possible about the ad that the NAACP produced in 2000, linking George W. Bush to the brutal murder of a black man, James Byrd, by racist thugs. Consider, too, the shameless smear campaign that Senate liberals (with a substantial assist from the mainstream media) waged against Judge Charles Pickering, a man who admirably stood up for civil rights in Mississippi at a time when few whites did so, yet who now found himself portrayed as soft on cross burners and thus unfit for a seat on the Fifth Circuit Court.

But another reality has also prompted the Republican shift on race: race remains the most volatile and, for white politicians, the most terrifying issue in American life. The mere hint of a “racism” charge transforms even normally principled leaders into panderers and cowards.

The brilliant social critic Shelby Steele gives the best explanation for this fear. Of mixed race himself, Steele writes of the paramount role that “white guilt” plays in contemporary American race relations. Conscious of the stain of the nation’s discriminatory past, whites often feel a powerful need “to demonstrate to the world that they’re not bigots.” They do so most readily by deferring, at least publicly, to the civil rights establishment on matters of racial justice.

Ward Connerly has repeatedly witnessed this dynamic at work firsthand. “I’ve often had the experience of speaking in a room of 100 people, and knowing that 99 of them agree with me,” he says. “But if there’s one angry black person in the audience who disagrees, that person controls the room. He’ll go on about the last 400 years, and institutional racism, and ‘driving while black,’ and the other 99 will just sit there and fold like a cheap accordion.”

As official Republican support has fallen away, it is largely black conservatives like Connerly and Steele who have continued to lead the challenge to government-sanctioned discrimination. Unburdened by white guilt, keenly attuned to the damage that the preferences regime has done not only to society at large but to its purported beneficiaries, they do not hesitate to speak uncomfortable truths that conventional politicians shun. They passionately argue that racial preferences, by their very nature, convey the message that—unlike other Americans—blacks can’t succeed by merit; that even as they encourage blacks to wrap themselves in the mantle of victimhood, preferences stigmatize all black achievement as illegitimate. Worse still, the racial spoils system has done nothing to help those whose lives are in the most desperate disarray: the black urban underclass.

“What affirmative action says is that blacks are fundamentally deficient and in need of special compensation based on events none of us even lived through,” asserts columnist and radio talk-show host Mychal Massie. “I frankly have to wonder whether those who continue to countenance racial preferences truly even care about the problems plaguing black America, because they obviously don’t care whether it works. It does nothing, nothing, to address out-of-wedlock births, fatherlessness, the illiteracy rate, attitudes about education, any of the issues that are destroying the black community in the country. It only allows those who support it to feel virtuous while they avoid facing those issues.”

Adds Massie: “It is frankly inconceivable to me that anyone who claims to believe in fairness would countenance that people in Michigan are being denied a seat in the classroom based on nothing more than the fact that they’re white. That is just as vile as it was when Bull Connor and Orval Faubus locked people out because they were black.”

It was an old-fashioned liberal, a veteran philosophy professor at the University of Michigan named Carl Cohen, who set in motion the events that eventually led to the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative. A former head of the state ACLU and a vigorous defender of individual rights, Cohen filed a Freedom of Information request in 1996 that forced the university to lay bare its admissions procedures. The evidence showed not only that university officials “had discriminated by race but that they intended to do so, they made no bones about it,” Cohen says. Indeed, the documents revealed that the admissions office had two distinct tracks: one for whites and the other for protected minorities.

Within months of the revelation, both the undergraduate division of the university and the law school faced legal challenges. The 17-year-old daughter of a police sergeant in a working-class Detroit suburb and the first in her family aiming for college, Jennifer Gratz had been turned down by the Ann Arbor campus that she’d long dreamed of attending in favor of “some friends of mine, kids I sat next to in class,” who clearly didn’t measure up to her academically. “I really had trouble at first believing they would do that,” she says now, laughing at her naivety. “It was so against everything I’d been taught was right—that you treat everyone fairly and equally.” In short order, she signed on as a plaintiff.

By the time the Supreme Court handed down its twin decisions in Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003, Gratz had long since graduated from college—at the University of Michigan’s less prestigious Dearborn campus. By allowing the university in effect to continue to use race as a factor in admissions—and a recent study from the Center for Equal Opportunity found the school’s discrimination against white and Asian applicants to be worse than ever—those rulings sparked the next phase of the battle against preferences: the push to institute a state constitutional ban, via the MCRI.

For preference foes, the Supreme Court battle was a disappointment in another crucial respect: it signaled the Bush administration’s abandonment of the cause. True, the administration, acting ostensibly on behalf of Gratz and the others unfairly denied admission to the university, submitted two amicus curiae briefs to the court, arguing that the University of Michigan’s quota-based admissions system was “plainly unconstitutional.” But the briefs also provided key fodder for the other side by agreeing that “diversity,” that vague feel-good catchall that liberals have enshrined as a primary good, “is an important and entirely legitimate government objective.”

As journalist Christopher Caldwell noted at the time, “The Bush memos are the most important substantive defense of affirmative action ever issued by a sitting president. If the Court accepts the president’s reasoning, it will have rescued affirmative action from what appeared to be a terminal constitutional illogic. More than that—it will have secured for this rickety program an indefinite constitutional legitimacy.” Caldwell proved prescient, the administration’s “diversity” argument being precisely the one that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor cited for her pivotal vote in the 5–4 decision. “Effective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civil life of our nation is essential if the dream of one nation, indivisible, is to be realized,” O’Connor declared, writing for the majority.

Opinion divides on the anti-preferences side about who bears the greatest responsibility for the administration’s revised affirmative-action stance. According to Terrence Pell, lead attorney for the Center for Individual Rights, which represented the plaintiffs in the U-M cases, “We’d been assured the Justice Department was going to take a strong position that diversity was not a compelling interest and that [then–solicitor general] Ted Olson’s shop had already written a brief taking on the diversity rationale. But this started a huge fight and [White House counsel] Alberto Gonzales put his foot down and forced the change in direction.”

Ward Connerly, who has again helped lead the fight against preferences in Michigan, speculates that the administration’s skittishness on the issue goes even higher. He recalls that when he first encountered then-governor George W. Bush in Texas, the future president was “extremely open” on the issue of preferences. “He threw his arm around me and said, ‘I want you to come up to the mansion, we’ve got to get together and talk about this.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, this is great,’ ” Connerly recalls. But when he tried to follow up, Connerly recounts, “I was told that Karl Rove doesn’t think that’s a good idea right now, we’ll get back to you later. To this day, it’s never happened.”

For the first five years of his presidency, Bush refused to appear before the NAACP’s annual convention, citing, as he did in 2004, “the rhetoric and the names they’ve called me.” That vituperation has continued unabated—perhaps even escalated. “Their idea of equal rights,” NAACP chairman Julian Bond said of Republicans this past February, “is the American flag and the Confederate swastika flying side by side.” Nonetheless, the president has now made his peace with the organization. In a platitude-heavy address to its 2006 convention, he spoke of how “racism still lingers in America” and referred warmly to Jesse Jackson and Julian Bond. “I understand that many African-Americans distrust my political party,” he added. “I want to change the relationship.”

There’s no indication, though, that a changed relationship will happen anytime soon. As Illinois senator Barack Obama, a Harvard Law School pal of GOP chairman Mehlman, told the New York Times, “The agenda of the Republican Party keeps getting in the way of that outreach.” Or, to put it more bluntly, it is impossible to out-pander the Democrats.

In fact, a pandering Republican approach is just as likely to put off many voters, including blacks who might otherwise find the party’s economic and social policies attractive. Says Connerly, “Deep down, black people deeply resent being treated like children. Ultimately, the way to appeal to blacks is the same way you do to whites, by showing you believe in things and fighting for them.”

What the party’s revised stance on race has done—aside from bolstering a civil rights establishment whose prestige had sharply declined and that remains unremittingly hostile to all that the Republican Party stands for—is leave longtime allies more vulnerable than ever to the toxic charge of “racism.”

Take the telltale case of William Bennett, the former education secretary and drug czar, who found himself under assault last October for comments he made on his popular radio talk show. Discussing the controversial claim, set forth in Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s best-selling book Freakonomics, that the national crime drop in recent years results in part from the prevalence of abortion among blacks, who commit crimes at a higher rate than the national average, Bennett, an abortion foe, acknowledged that “if you wanted to reduce crime, you could; if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.” But—he continued—“that would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do.”

Bennett’s meaning was clear as could be, though that didn’t stop the likes of Howard Dean (“Bill Bennett’s hateful, inflammatory remarks regarding African-Americans are simply inexcusable”) and Harry Reid (he should “issue an immediate apology not only to African-Americans but to the nation”) from predictably, and no doubt deliberately, misreading it. What was startling, though, was the White House’s implicit endorsement of Democratic demagoguery, with presidential press secretary Scott McClellan gravely intoning, “The President believes the comments were not appropriate.”

In Michigan, those waging the campaign for colorblind admissions and hiring find themselves similarly isolated. The anti-MCRI coalition lists more than 180 sponsoring organizations, from the NAACP, the ACLU, and the League of Women Voters to the Michigan Catholic Conference, the Arab American Institute, and the YWCA. Bankrolling the pro-affirmative-action forces are, among other corporate giants, the Big Three automakers. The state’s Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, up for reelection, voices strong support for preferences, and Detroit’s Sharpton-like mayor Kwame Kilpatrick backs them even more vociferously.

Kilpatrick got so carried away a few months back that he unwittingly echoed George Wallace at the schoolhouse door, declaiming: “There will be affirmative action here today, there will be affirmative action here tomorrow, there will be affirmative action in our state forever!”

But none of that opposition is likely to carry as much weight on election day as the stance struck by Granholm’s Republican rival, Amway heir Dick De Vos. Though not formally listed as part of the pro-affirmative-action coalition—and he surely wishes that the issue would just go away, so he could run mainly on Michigan’s disastrous economy—De Vos’s tepid comments in opposition to the MCRI wind up trumpeted at every opportunity by its foes.

Bereft of institutional support, the MCRI runs on a shoestring, operating out of executive director Gratz’s apartment outside Lansing, where the campaign’s three young full-time workers sleep on the floor. Campaign manager Doug Tietz is only semi-facetious when he points to a state map and remarks, “This section here represents 6 million people—Clark’s in charge of that—and John handles this area, 4 million people.”

The lopsided disparity in resources has taken its toll, with the pro-MCRI forces having to counter not only a sustained ad campaign misrepresenting the measure’s intent but also a series of legal assaults aimed at keeping it off the ballot. As in the earlier campaigns in California and Washington, the pro-preferences side has sought to put the focus on sex instead of race, aggressively targeting women in commercials that enumerate the alleged ways that the MCRI will hurt them. “What they say is so unbelievably false, it makes your jaw drop,” complains Gratz. “MCRI would close breast cancer screening centers? Eliminate girls’ sports teams? It’s just ludicrous. What it would do is make sure girls applying to college aren’t penalized if their skin’s the wrong color.”

Spearheading the effort to deny the MCRI ballot access has been a group called By Any Means Necessary, led by radical white activists but overwhelmingly manned by young blacks. Fitting its name, BAMN hasn’t hesitated to use threats and outright intimidation to achieve its ends. On several occasions, members have set upon Gratz, cursing and spitting in her face; not long ago, she discovered that someone had tampered with her car’s brakes. At the state Board of Canvassers meeting where MCRI’s petitions were to be certified as valid, BAMN members caused such mayhem—screaming invective and overturning a table—that the cowed commissioners actually refused to do their job. The courts subsequently had to certify the measure for the ballot.

BAMN’s main legal argument claimed that MCRI signature gatherers fooled innumerable black voters into signing the group’s petitions by misrepresenting the initiative as pro-affirmative-action—an implausible contention, given the clear description of the measure’s intent at the top of every petition. In any case, the anti-preferences campaign collected a record 508,000-plus signatures. Since certification required only 317,517 signatures, the measure would have qualified even if officials had disallowed every conceivable disputed signature.

Even after state courts had repeatedly shot down its challenges, though, BAMN, joined by Mayor Kilpatrick, went to federal court, charging the MCRI with violating the Voting Rights Act. In a courtroom packed with BAMN’s young and obstreperous rank and file this August, the judge hearing the case, Arthur Tarnow—an NAACP member, former legal aid lawyer, and Clinton appointee—made little effort to hide his hostility toward the MCRI. Even as he severely limited the MCRI attorneys’ ability to question BAMN witnesses who claimed that signature gatherers had hoodwinked them, he gave BAMN’s attorneys free rein to rip into Gratz and the MCRI.

While finally even Tarnow could not find any Voting Rights Act grounds on which to strike the MCRI from the ballot—a move that almost surely would have been overturned on appeal—his ruling gave its foes a massive cudgel with which to beat it down, not only agreeing with BAMN’s inflammatory charges but expanding on them. The MCRI, he wrote, had sought to deceive not just blacks but “appears to have targeted all Michigan voters for deception without regard to race.”

A year ago, polls showed the MCRI winning easily with upward of 60 percent. Now the numbers have tightened, with one of the most recent polls showing it in a dead heat, and the other showing it ahead by four points.

But whatever the result—and voters notoriously lie to pollsters on issues involving race—the party’s role in the contest is something many thoughtful Republicans will regard with sorrow. If the MCRI loses, it will demonstrate yet again the damage done by the party’s flight from principle; if it wins, it will stand as even more evidence that the GOP is on the wrong side not only of its base, but of history.

“It truly makes you yearn for a return of leaders like Ronald Reagan or Pete Wilson,” says Connerly of recent events in Michigan. “People who knew what they believed and weren’t afraid to act on their beliefs. You really have to wonder where people like that have gone.”

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