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Affirmative Action

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I. "We didn't land on Plymouth Rock, my brothers and sisters - Plymouth Rock landed on us!" Malcolm X's observation is brought out by the facts of American History. Snatched from their native land, transported thousands of miles - in a nightmare of disease and death - and sold into slavery, blacks were reduced to the legal status of farm animals. Even after emancipation, blacks were segregated from whites - in some states by law, and by social practice almost everywhere. American apartheid continued for another century.

In 1954 the Supreme Court declared state-compelled segregation in schools unconstitutional, and it followed up that decision with others that struck down many forms of official segregation. Still, discrimination survived, and in most southern states blacks were either discouraged or prohibited from exercising their right to vote. Not until the 1960's was compulsory segregation finally and effectively challenged. Between 1964 and 1968 Congress passed the most sweeping civil rights legislation since the end of the Civil War. It banned discrimination in employment, public accommodations (hotels, motels, restaurants, etc.), and housing; it also guaranteed voting rights for blacks in areas suspected of disenfranchising blacks. Today, several agencies in the federal government exercise sweeping powers to enforce these civil rights measures.

But is that enough? Equality of condition between blacks and whites seems as elusive as ever. The black unemployment rate is double that of whites, and the percentage of black families living in poverty is nearly four times that of whites. Only a small percentage of blacks ever make it into medical school or law schools.

Advocates of affirmative action have focused upon these differences to support their argument that it is no longer enough just to stop discrimination. Liberal Democrats feel that the damage done by three centuries of racism now has to be remedied, they argue, and effective remediation requires a policy of "affirmative action." At the heart of affirmative action is the use of "numerical goals." Opponents call them "racial quotas." Whatever the name, what they imply is the setting aside of a certain number of jobs or positions for blacks or other historically oppressed groups. Conservative Republicans charge that affirmative action really amounts to reverse discrimination, that it penalizes innocent people simply because they are white, that it often results in unqualified appointments, and that it ends up harming instead of helping blacks.

The issue of preferences to address historical patterns of racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination has received a great deal of attention nationally. Whether in government contracts, private sector hiring, college admissions, or state hiring practices, opponents in the issue have engaged in often-heated debates. In Michigan, legislation to limit or eliminate affirmative action has been introduced this session.

A good example of this legislation was proposed on March 18,1998 and it is called SJR N (S-2). This resolution proposed an amendment to the Michigan Constitution to prohibit discrimination based on sex or ethnicity and to prohibit the state and its political subdivisions from using religion, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin as a basis for discriminating against or giving preferential treatment to any individual or group in employment, public education, or public contracting.

The present system violates the fundamental principle of equal protection of the law against discrimination on the basis of immutable characteristics of race, sex, color, ethnicity, and national origin. SJR



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