It was 16 years ago – October 14, 1997 – that I filed what I thought was a simple lawsuit challenging discriminatory use of race preferences at the University of Michigan.
It is unfortunate that today, as we near the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, we are still fighting for the right to be treated without regard to race when interacting with our government. This was in fact the original idea of “affirmative action,” the simple concept that our government should not be able to pick winners and losers based on skin color. Somewhere along the line we got off track.
In June 2003 I won my lawsuit against UM’s undergraduate school but found little reason to celebrate. My victory in Gratz v. Bollinger was little more than a personal one when the Supreme Court decided to allow nuanced uses of race to continue in Grutter v. Bollinger. I did not start fighting for equal treatment for personal victories; I chose to fight for principled victory so that nobody else would feel the sting of discrimination I had felt.
In the days after the decisions in Gratz and Grutter were released, I decided to take my case directly to the voters. In 2003 I uprooted my life and without any political experience started a ballot initiative – the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative – to amend my home state’s constitution with the following language:
The State shall not discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to any group or individual on the basis of race, sex, color ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting.
On November 7, 2006 Michigan voters chose equality over discrimination in a 16-point landslide.
The morning after election day, U-M President Mary Sue Coleman declared war on this amendment, commanding her legal team to find ways to bypass and challenge the law. Sure enough, the radical group By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) filed a lawsuit. Virtually no one took it seriously because BAMN essentially argued that equality violated the Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution.
Nearly five years after Michigan voters amended the constitution, BAMN managed to convince a handful of judges on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals to go along with this Orwellian nonsense. Legalese and jurisprudence aside, there isn’t a lay person I know that can wrap their head around the idea that a state’s constitutional command for equal treatment without regard to race somehow violates the Equal Protection Clause.
Fortunately, Michigan Attorney General appealed this ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, and it agreed to hear oral arguments on Tuesday, October 15 in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action. More than just Michigan is at stake though.
We are at a crossroads. We can choose to step backward and allow our government to classify us based on our skin color, doling out preferences to some while discriminating against others. Or we can choose to move toward that great dream of colorblind government, where we are judged not based on the color of our skin but on our character and our merit.