Posted on October 19, 2006

Ban Affirmative Action? Michigan Voters Say ‘No,’ New Poll Shows, Jennifer Millman, Oct. 18, 2006

In just 20 days, Michigan will vote on Ward Connerly’s Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI) — an anti-affirmative-action measure that would deal a blow to equal opportunity both in the state and nationwide.

Connerly’s supporters were invigorated by last month’s statewide poll, which showed more public opposition to affirmative action than support. But just 20 days until the vote, public sentiment is shifting once again — this time for the better.

The public now opposes the proposal to ban affirmative action — 44 percent to 41 percent with 15 percent undecided, according to an October Detroit Free-Press poll of 643 likely voters.

The University of Michigan’s Susan Kaufmann drilled down the potential impact of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI) to a concise yet chilling conclusion: “The [Supreme Court] decision upholding affirmative action would be nullified if the MCRI passed in Michigan.”

Real impact on business

“Business is on the line because corporations have to compete internationally,” says Jonathan Alger, who represented the University of Michigan (UM) in the two affirmative-action cases brought before the Supreme Court in 2003 and now is vice president and general counsel of Rutgers University in New Jersey. “Cross-cultural competency is a key skill in the work force, and corporations recognize that.”

The 65 corporations that signed the 2003 amicus brief supporting affirmative action at the University of Michigan certainly do.

“People think if it’s not in my backyard I don’t have to worry about it,” says Alger. “There’s a domino effect. If [the MCRI] were to pass in Michigan, of all places, where the Supreme Court recognized the importance of diversity efforts, it will make it very difficult in other states to stop this sort of thing.”

Lack of awareness makes the MCRI particularly dangerous. “If we are not proactively advancing inclusion, we start to clamp down on creativity, innovation and potential market penetration,” says Linda Forte, senior vice president of business affairs with Comerica, No. 12 in The 2006 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity®. “From the standpoint of a company that’s headquartered [in Michigan], we know it can have the impact of closing down opportunities.”

Real CEO commitment

After learning that the MCRI would appear on the November ballot, Comerica Chairman and CEO Ralph Babb signed up to be co-chair of One United Michigan, a coalition of more than 200 organizations and individuals that has joined to defend affirmative action.

In Michigan, unemployment is high, the economy is in transition and the state ranks 49th in the country with respect to its gender gap, says Kaufmann, who is the associate director of UM’s Center for the Education of Women. What’s at stake for employers?

“If the ballot proposal passes, I think it will be much more difficult for Michigan to elevate from that position,” said Forte. “We’re a company that’s out there trying to recruit the best and the brightest. If there’s any reason to believe it’s more difficult to make progress here, simply because of the legislative environment, it would make [passing the MCRI] a terrible mistake, particularly at this point in our growth and economic struggle as a state.”

The financial contributions of Michigan’s largest employers now have topped $1 million. Each of the Big Three automakers — DaimlerChrysler, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors — has donated $250,000 to galvanize voter support for affirmative action. Comerica and DTE Energy each donated $150,000 and Toyota gave $100,000, according to the Detroit News.

Real lessons learned

The consequences of Proposition 209 in California are an indication of what could befall Michigan, and the public needs to pay attention.

“One of the concerns emerging in California is that the portions of the population that are growing the fastest are among the less likely to pursue or have access to higher education,” says Kaufmann. “If they’re not able to broaden access to education and really educate the portions of their population that are growing, the standard of living in the state is going to fall and their ability in the state to attract employers that have well-educated workers will be diminished.”

The impact of the MCRI would extend beyond today’s labor force, and the consequences would be indefinite, both for Michigan and the United States at large.

“In addition to the direct legal impact something like this would have on restricting certain types of programs, there’s another potential and more serious impact,” says Alger. “When people see that anything they do no matter how modest is going to be challenged and scrutinized and may be subject to lawsuits, there’s a chilling effect. Ironically, they feel that the only way to avoid scrutiny is to not promote equal-employment opportunity, which defeats the whole purpose.”