Yesterday at Grand Valley State University (GVSU), a panel discussion was held on affirmative action featuring the primary funder of the anti-affirmative action Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI), Ward Connerly.
Ward Connerly, the California businessman who has organized anti-affirmative action measures around the country and who has primarily funded the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI) or Proposal 2, spoke Wednesday at a panel discussion on affirmative action at Grand Valley State University (GVSU) in his second Grand Rapids appearance. The panel also featured three other panelists including national renown, conservative commentator and Fox News contributor Linda Chavez, NAACP Washington bureau director Hillary Shelton, and attorney for the Racial Justice Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Mark Fancher. The panel was attended by a couple hundred GVSU students, faculty, and community members, with panelists drawing frequent applause for their statements. The moderator of the event—Jennifer Moss of WOOD TV 8—set the context for the panel by reading the ballot language and describing the issue as “one of the most contentious issues” on the ballot, an interesting statement given the lack of coverage of the MCRI in the corporate media. Moss went on to share a recent poll on the MCRI showing that the ballot proposal is very much still an open issue, with 44% of voters opposing it, 41% supporting, and 15% undecided.
The panel was structured so that each panelist received a 2 minute opening statement, followed by a series of four questions posed by the moderator, and then questions submitted by the audience and chosen by the moderator. Hillary Shelton of the NAACP opened the discussion by explaining that affirmative action is a tool for equal opportunity and that it is not about granting “preferences” as the rhetoric of MCRI’s supporters asserted, but rather that it was about eliminating the “preferences of the good ole boy network” and giving opportunities and access to people of color and women who have been systematically denied opportunities because of their race and/or gender. Ward Connerly responded that while race is a contentious issue in the United States, that we need to work towards a society that is “colorblind” and in which the government does not consider race. He argued that the government currently does this and treats people differently based on race and that such actions are “morally wrong.” Mark Fancher of the ACLU responded that all affirmative action programs would be banned with the passage of Proposal 2 and pointed out that many opponents of affirmative action regularly engage in it, citing the judicial appointment of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and the racial make-up of President George W. Bush’s cabinet. Fancher also stressed that the proposal is an amendment to the constitution and that it will be permanent if passed. Conservative commentator Linda Chavez explained how she participated in the civil rights movement before the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act because of the United States’ 200 year failure to live up to its ideals, but asserted that with the passage of this act, failure was overcome and now everyone can be judged equally based on merit.
In the questions that followed the opening remarks, the panelists addressed a number of frequently raised issues surrounding both affirmative action generally and the MCRI specifically. The panelists addressed the “successes” and “failures” of affirmative action. Shelton argued that affirmative action’s biggest success has been granting of opportunity where it does not exist in areas such as universities and corporate America. Fancher echoed Shelton in explaining that it has granted opportunity to those previously denied, but he said affirmative action’s weakness is that there is still an under representation of people of color and women in many key areas and that the conditions of racism that necessitated the creation of affirmative action programs still exist. Shelton explained that the right—exemplified by people like Connerly and Chavez—have distorted affirmative action by talking about quotas, which are illegal and “preferences,” which affirmative action seeks to eliminate, and have shifted the dialogue away from the conditions that justify affirmative action. Even the conservatives Connerly and Chavez stated that affirmative action has been successful in breaking down barriers to equal treatment, although they differed in concluding that affirmative action has outlived its usefulness. It was also during this time that Connerly articulated an oft-repeated assertion during the debate that eliminating affirmative action will get rid of the “resentment” towards people of color that are—in his argument—constantly second-guessed at universities as being there only because of affirmative action.
Connerly also spoke about how he believed that currently, unqualified students are consistently being admitted into universities where they are “unable to compete” and consequently are failing out of college. He bemoaned the fact that because of the admission processes that he described (it is very much debatable as to whether these exist and there was no substantive discussion of them), “historically black universities” are suffering, as they are unable to enroll students who are choosing other universities that they may not be prepared for. Of course, any perceived lack of preparedness would no doubt be due to a history of structural racism and inadequate allotment of resources for urban school districts, but there was no serious discussion of this issue. Instead, Linda Chavez stated that there has been a failure to address educational inferiority based on race due to public policy and said that proponents of affirmative action are admitting “unqualified” students into the universities as a means of addressing this. Fancher described the idea the false concern of Proposal 2 supporters over students of color and their alleged inability to compete as paternalistic and stressed that the MCRI is a measure simply designed to put students in the “right” schools, emphasizing the fact that Connerly was essentially telling students of color that they should “go back to black schools where you belong.” Shelton asserted that the policies were the “politics of relegation” and that the proponents of Proposal 2 only want students of color in areas where they approve—such as athletics or music programs—but that they will try to stop them when they move into other areas.
Unfortunately, while the panel was focusing on the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, none of the panelists were from Michigan and consequently did not have much insight into the specific effects that Proposal 2 will have on the state if passed. Despite this, there was considerable discussion over what forms of affirmative action Proposal 2 bans, with opponents of the MCRI arguing that it will ban all forms of affirmative action including public health programs. The debate over what will be banned under Proposal 2 became quite contentious at times, with Shelton and Fancher arguing that public health programs targeted specifically to communities of color or women could be potential targets of lawsuits and Connerly arguing that the MCRI will only apply to the areas of public education, public contracting, and public employment. In order to address this question, the panelists looked to the Connerly supported Proposition 209 in California that ended affirmative action in the 1990s. Hillary Shelton described how after the passage of Proposition 209 there was a decrease of African Americans and other populations of color in California’s universities and that there has been a lack of outreach towards people of color and women. Similarly, Fancher explained that this year the University of California system has the lowest number of black students since 1973, that women in the construction field have dropped by 33%, and that there has been a 39% drop in tenured African American faculty. Connerly argued that there are more black students in the University of California system now than before Proposition 209 and that they are now at more appropriate schools where they are “qualified” to be, but there was no specific discussion of these numbers. Connerly also went on to state that it is “ludicrous to say that school don’t want blacks” as there is significant competition among all universities for black students and that the “mindless blather about diversity” coming from proponents of affirmative action is just a rhetorical cover for treating people differently based on race. Of course, Connerly offered no proof to support this claim.
During the panel, an audience submitted questions that brought up issues concerning who will benefit from the passage of the MCRI. Mark Fancher stated that the only one who stands to benefit from the MCRI is Ward Connerly, who was selected by a group of white male funders to be a national spokesperson for the anti-affirmative action movement and is paid each year to promote this view. He pointed out that corporations, universities, Michigan’s gubernatorial candidates, and most others have come out in opposition to the MCRI. Connerly said that he did not know who will benefit financially but rejected and dismissed attacks by Fancher and said that he is disappointed that the debate has degenerated into personal attacks. Connerly chose to ignore questions about who is funding and supporting his work, thereby sidestepping the fact that conservative foundations have funded Connerly. $5.1 million in funding was awarded to Connerly’s American Civil Rights Institute from 1997 to 2005. Nor was there any discussion of the fact that white supremacist groups are supporting and campaigning in support of the MCRI and the questions that their support raises about the true goals of the initiative. During the debate Connerly also failed to address Fancher’s point that many petition signatures were gather fraudulently—including many in Grand Rapids—a claim that has been backed up by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission who issued a report stating that the MCRI “is based upon a massive campaign of fraud and deceit.”