If you think that the collapse of Michigan's auto industry and manufacturing economy were the major issues facing us today, you really don't have a clue. Poverty? Disintegration of Detroit? Child sexual abuse?
How out of it can you be? No one really cares about those things. The major dilemma facing us all, as we slide merrily into the abyss, is how we can possibly right the horrible wrong that kept a little blond girl named Jennifer Gratz from going to the University of Michigan a decade ago.
Jennifer didn't like that she was turned down, not one bit. "I was embarrassed. I was upset. I read the first three lines of the letter and immediately started crying," she told CNN three years ago.
She ran to her daddy.
"Can we sue them?" she said. Yes, snookums. She got really furious when she learned that some of those black folk had gotten in when she hadn't, and that some of them didn't have grades as high as she did in her suburban Detroit high school. Plus, she was a cheerleader and a math tutor. The injustice of it all. So she did indeed sue them, helped by a lot of the usual sorts of people, and it got all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But three years ago even some of the justices who installed George W. Bush as president told Jennifer to get a life, and that affirmative action was fine. By then, she had earned a degree from the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and had fled to the valleys of Southern California, which were presumably in dire need of one more Jennifer.
Originally, she wept bitterly that her dream was to become a doctor (evidently you can't be one without going first to U-M), but then she worked in software. She does not, however, take no for an answer, even from the Supremes. So she is now the official head of a group carefully calling itself the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, and it has managed to place a constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot this year.
If it passes and I think there is a very good chance that it will it would outlaw what we think of as "affirmative action," not only in college admissions, but in any kind of government hiring.
Naturally, Jennifer's people pretend they aren't against affirmative action. The other day I mentioned (in a neutral context) in another newspaper that the ballot proposal would outlaw affirmative action.
Immediately, I got an e-mail from Jennifer's intellectual sugar daddy, California businessman Ward Connerly, who is helping to bankroll the Michigan effort to abolish affirmative action.
I was being dishonest, he said. Why, "affirmative action programs that do not conflict with this language or that do not grant preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity and national ancestry would be unaffected." Well, I guess that leaves us with programs that favor suburban cheerleaders.
Frankly, this is all Orwellian playing with language. In the modern common understanding, affirmative action means precisely weighting admissions criteria to use some or all of those priorities.
Today, those who want to outlaw affirmative action are mainly too sophisticated to say "we resent to hell the fact that some Negroes with lower grade point averages got into the University of Michigan, and my kid didn't." So instead they couch it in terms of equality and fairness.
Sweet reason indeed. That is, if you assume that all high schools are equal, and all families provide equal support for them, and every kid has the same bowl of Wheaties on the breakfast table.
We all know that they don't, and that some bright kids don't have Wheaties or even a table. And even with affirmative action, those pushy, nasty minorities haven't exactly overrun the University of Michigan; the percentage of African-Americans in the undergraduate population is still only about half what it is statewide.
The other day I talked about this with Frank Wu, dean of the law school at Wayne State University. He is an Asian-American who grew up not far from Jennifer Gratz, in suburban Wayne County, and graduated from the University of Michigan's law school.
He thinks we ought to start thinking about affirmative action in far wider ways than we do now. "If we want to talk seriously about race, we should have an accurate picture of the world," which is moving way beyond black and white. Indeed, Michigan's Asian and Arab-American and Hispanic-American populations are all growing rapidly.
The dean gave a lecture at the University of Michigan the other day in which he had a message both supporters and opponents of affirmative action needed to hear. "We need to talk about what affirmative action is intended to address. What sort of society do we want to have?
"What do we want our institutions to look like, who do we want to belong there, and then, how do we get there?"
What we don't want is a student population which looks just like a microcosm of affluent white society. Jennifer Gratz probably doesn't know this, but a large part of U-M's greatness stems from the fact that, once upon a time, it was completely open to Jewish students.
Back in the day, most of the nation's Ivy League and other prestigious schools let in few Jews. So undesirables like Arthur Miller and Mike Wallace came to the U-M. No doubt there were those who would have rather seen their places filled by good Ottawa County Protestants.
Ironically, it is possible that Jennifer Gratz may herself have been a beneficiary of affirmative action at the University of Michigan but that it still wasn't enough to push her over the line.
Applicants do get points for socioeconomic disadvantage and for being from areas of the state that are underrepresented at the university. She came from the downriver blue-collar suburb of Southgate, which doesn't send many folks to the U-M. And actually, she was put on a waiting list for admission. Heaven, however, can't wait.
Wouldn't it be delicious irony if affirmative action survives and someday, presumably after I begin dirt-napping, some descendant of Jennifer Gratz applies for admission?
By then, Michigan may no longer have an Anglo majority. But imagine that thanks to affirmative action this bright young member of the underrepresented white race then manages to get in.
Today's national contest: I am mildly curious to see what is the best excuse anyone can come up with for continuing to spend billions of dollars to have our soldiers blown up by roadside bombs in Iraq. (That is, other than making sure Halliburton eventually controls the oil.) I promise to print the best one here, and also surrender my next ticket on the space shuttle.
In support of busing: Peace Action of Michigan is taking part in what organizers hope will be a monster "Stop the Lyin', Spyin' and Dyin'" anti-war demonstration in New York City on Saturday, April 29.
Al Fishman, the gentle and tireless organizer of a million peace efforts, told me he'd break my limbs if I didn't tell you about it. Buses leave from the Detroit area the night before and come back Sunday; for information and to find out how to get a window seat, call 586-751-1199.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]