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Civil rights group slams Michigan ban on affirmative action

Supreme Court decision wipes out gains of civil rights movement, could lead to more bans in other states, group says

Civil rights groups on Wednesday blasted a Supreme Court decision to uphold Michigan’s ban against using race as a factor in college admissions — arguing that many public institutions bend the rules to make room for children of alumni, out-of-state students and star athletes.

“What this decision is saying is that there is an exception that is made and can be made for every group in the world except for black and Latino students,” George Washington, an attorney at By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), a Michigan-based coalition to defend affirmative action, told Al Jazeera.

The Supreme Court decision, critics say, could bolster similar bans in seven other states — Arizona, California, Florida, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Washington — or affect decisions in states that are considering similar bans.

Supporters of the affirmative action ban say that all races should be treated equally, and that giving special treatment to minorities is tantamount to discrimination. A Pew Research poll released Tuesday showed that although most Americans support affirmative action, the overall numbers mask strong racial and partisan divides on the topic.

“This claim of reverse discrimination has been used against every gain of the civil rights movement from 1863 forward,” said Washington. “They took off the gloves, and we’ll take off the gloves. We’ll go back to sit-ins, protests and other civil disobedience that won the civil rights movement in the first place.”

BAMN was planning protests at the University of Michigan on Wednesday to demand that it increase minority enrollment, according to Washington.

In Tuesday’s decision, the Supreme Court, although divided, ruled that Michigan voters had the right to change their state constitution to prohibit public colleges and universities from taking race into account in admission decisions.

"This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved," wrote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy for the majority opinion. "It is about who may resolve it."

Michigan voters passed the initial ban by ballot initiative in 2006. It prohibits the use of affirmative action programs that give preferential treatment in state contracting, employment and higher education. But the state's battle over affirmative action began nearly two decades ago, when two white students were denied undergraduate admission to the University of Michigan and challenged the university’s policy that gave preference to underrepresented minorities.

“It’s fundamentally wrong to treat people differently based on the color of their skin,” State Attorney General Bill Schuette, who defended the ban on affirmative action in court Tuesday, told the Free Press.

But civil rights groups say that is exactly what happens to African-Americans and other minorities in the U.S. Affirmative action, they say, is one way to achieve a higher level of inclusiveness. They point to data showing that minorities are underrepresented in higher education institutions across the country.

African-Americans make up about 5 percent of the student body of the University of Michigan, according to university figures. State demographics, by contrast, show that African-Americans constitute about 14 percent of Michigan’s population, according to the 2010 U.S. census.

“Undergraduate enrollment of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and Native Americans at UM has dropped significantly over the last decade,” The Grio, an NBC affiliate providing African-American-focused news, reported.

The same is true in California, a state that has had a similar ban in place for 16 years. Civil rights groups said freshman admission rates among minority groups fell by over 50 percent during the first year that California’s ban took effect — from 45 to 20 percent.

BAMN said affirmative action is necessary, and fair, because minorities struggle with many disadvantages when it comes to education.

In Detroit alone, 60 percent of African-American students study in majority-black schools that are inferior to majority-white schools found in the city’s suburbs, BAMN said.

That means over half of Detroit’s African-American students are at a disadvantage from the start. Latino students deal with all of the same problems, in addition to differences in language and citizenship.

“This case rests on the idea that grades and test scores are neutral merits of promise, and if you insert anything else in there it’s unfair. First of all, they are not neutral — they reflect massive inequality in schools, with a great advantage given to white students,” Washington said.

“All you have to do is come to Detroit and look at a few of our schools, then go to a school in the suburbs and look — it’s just obvious.”

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