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NATIONAL | spring 2006

Ward Connerly Strikes Again
Michigan initiative would end affirmative action for women and minorities.

As he did in California in 1996 and in Washington state in 1998, California businessman Ward Connerly has led a successful campaign to place an anti-affirmative-action measure on Michigan’s November ballot.

The misleadingly named Michigan Civil Rights Initiative would amend the state’s constitution to end affirmative action programs for women and people of color in public employment, education and contracting. Many feel it’s also meant to subvert a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed race to remain a factor in admissions at the University of Michigan.

Opponents of the initiative believe it will roll back advances women and minorities have made in the state, and fail to correct still-glaring inequities. For example, Michigan is tied with Alabama for having the second-worst gender pay gap in America. In higher education, the state’s women earn fewer professional and doctorate degrees than the national women’s average.

A recent report by University of Michigan researcher Susan W. Kaufmann outlined the types of women’s programs that could be threatened should
the ballot initiative pass. Those include:

  • Gender-specific screening programs for breast and cervical cancer, and public-health campaigns to promote breastfeeding and prenatal smoking cessation.
  • Apprenticeship, education and training programs for nontraditional occupations.
  • Outreach programs to help women and minorities compete for government contracts.
  • Recruitment and support programs for women interested in pursuing careers in the skilled trades.

In the aftermath of California’s Proposition 209, studies show that women have been underrepresented in the state’s skilled trades, graduate schools and college faculties. Gyöngy Laky, a professor at the University of California, Davis, has derisively called 209 “an effective affirmative action program for white men.”

Some believe that, while higher education is the most discussed affirmative action arena, the real goal for Connerly — an African American who, nonetheless, abhors affirmative action — is to diminish competition from women and minorities in the lucrative business of government contracting. In Washington, according to the Seattle Times, four years after the passage of Connerly-supported Proposition I-200, contracts awarded to women- and minority-owned firms had dropped by more than a quarter. Connerly himself was a California lobbyist in Sacramento for state contractors.

A number of activist groups have formed to fight the Michigan initiative, including Michigan Women United, a nonprofit coalition of women’s organizations. In one small preliminary victory, opponents managed to adopt ballot wording to accurately state the initiative’s intention to “ban affirmative action programs.” However, those words are followed by “…that give preferential treatment to groups of individuals.” Affirmative action proponents do not consider it preferential treatment.

The governor of the state, Jennifer Granholm, has come out strongly against the initiative and its out-of-state backer. “It is possible the proponents of this effort to change our constitution chose Michigan as their next affirmative action battleground precisely because we are a state struggling to transform our economy in the wake of federal policies that have literally
shipped our manufacturing jobs overseas by the tens of thousands,” Gov.
Granholm wrote in the Detroit Free Press. “Perhaps they thought that our
economic problems would force us to turn on each other, to pit neighbor
against neighbor. If Mr. Connerly knew us better, he would understand the futility of that approach.”

 

Llenda Jackson-Leslie is president of the National Women’s Political Caucus and a leader of Michigan Women United. For more information about the coalition fighting the Michigan initiative, see
www.oneunitedmichigan.org.