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National NOW Times >> Winter 2007  >> Article

Conservatives Push to End Affirmative Action

By Jan Erickson, Director of Government Relations

Foes of equal opportunity chalked up several recent successes in their multi-layered attacks on affirmative action and equal opportunity programs. In November, fifty-eight percent of Michigan voters passed a referendum amending the state constitution to "ban affirmative action programs that give preferential treatment to groups or individuals based on their race, gender, color, ethnicity or national original for public employment, education or contracting purposes."

NOW activists fought long and hard against the ballot measure in Michigan, but in the end attributed their defeat to purposeful deceit. The deceptive title of the ballot measure, the "Michigan Civil Rights Initiative" (MCRI), suggested a very different intent from the actual purpose of the initiative. Affirmative action foes know that many voters do not read the full text of long initiatives that are far down the ballot, and they counted on voters to say "yes" to something with Civil Rights in the name.

Because the language of the MCRI is broad, it appears that there can no longer be outreach programs for girls and students of color in math, science or technology; or scholarships for women and people of color, women's health care programs, women's studies programs and, of course, no more government contract set-asides for women-owned and minority-owned businesses that were a primary target of the campaign. Other government programs targeting women and members of minority groups for job training and non-traditional employment recruitment also are not permissible under the MCRI language.

The measure was promoted by the same group of business interests and arch conservative organizations that passed similar initiatives in California (1996) and Washington (1998). Several misleadingly-named organizations, the Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO), the Center for Individual Rights (CIR) and the National Association of Scholars (NAS) were behind the efforts. For the past decade, these groups have sought to limit, restrict and repeal a variety of laws, rules and programs that have been successful in making the playing field more level for women and people of color.

Money, always a motivation for conservative activists, has led these anti-affirmative action groups and their big-business backers to try to end contracting set-asides for women- and minority-owned businesses – even though the proportion of government contracted funds set aside for that purpose is comparatively small. At the same time, their right-wing political allies benefit from the resentment factor that is used as an election wedge issue in states where workers have suffered from a stagnant economy, as in Michigan.

Equal opportunity advocates fear that with this win, anti-affirmative action forces will attempt to place similar bans on many other state ballots for the 2008 elections.

Conservative attacks on scholarships for women and people of color intensified at the national level in 2005 when the Bush administration's Department of Justice joined with CEO to challenge gender and minority-based scholarships and fellowships at Southern Illinois University. Also, NAS has sent letters to prominent colleges and universities in 20 states asking for all documents that relate to statements, discussions, policies and procedures about consideration of race.

Following Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), waived an executive order requiring federal contractors to prepare affirmative action plans for all new federal contracts dealing with hurricane relief. The DOL Office of Federal Contract Compliance proposed to eliminate the Equal Opportunity Survey which collects information on federal contractors' affirmative action programs, hiring procedures and compensation in order to detect whether there is any discrimination again women or people of color. Most shocking is an August, 2005 report (Federal Procurement after Adarand) by the now obviously subverted U.S. Commission on Civil Rights which denounces affirmative action programs in contracting and calls for an end to equal opportunity policies and affirmation action.

See our story on Supreme Court cases on affirmative action in voluntary school desegregation.

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