Chamber: 'No' To Civil Rights Initiative

November 30, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce emphatically disagreed with proponents of a state civil rights proposal set for next November’s ballot.

Proponents argue that its passage would result in everyone in the state being treated equally — regardless of race or gender — when doing business with public entities, when applying for admission to public schools and colleges, and when seeking public-sector employment.

On top of its negative assessment, the chamber went a step further by arguing that women and minorities would actually lose the progress they have made over the past four decades if voters pass the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI) next fall.

“The way that it is written, it would actually do great harm to employment in terms of recruitment of minorities and women because it outlaws programs that have helped women and people of color get better jobs in education. And that has been proven through the California legislation,” said Jeanne Englehart, chamber president.

The initiative would amend the civil rights section of the state constitution to ban governments, schools and agencies in the state from “discriminating or granting preferential treatment based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin” in hiring, admission to schools, and awarding contracts.

Opponents of the initiative compare the measure to California Proposition 209, an anti-affirmation action proposal that voters in that state ratified eight years ago. A pair of California nonprofit firms released a study last year that showed women lost jobs in the construction industry following the proposition’s passage. Prior to the measure, women employed in construction in California rose by 26 percent from 1990 to 1996, the report said. But after the measure became law and affirmative action was purged, the study claimed the number of women in the trade dropped by 33 percent.

“What the statistics from California show is there have been great setbacks for minorities and women,” said Englehart. “In many cases, that trend of increasing representation for women and minorities has been reversed.”

The chamber also argues that the initiative would cut programs that have filled gender gaps in certain professions, such as women in engineering and men in nursing, and would eliminate diversity-based scholarships.

The chamber isn’t the only business group in the state that has gone on record opposing the initiative, as a number of groups in Detroit have also voiced their distress on the issue.

“It would eliminate the opportunities for contracting for women and minorities, and it would be a detrimental impact to those arenas who have benefited from that,” Amy Marshall, executive director of the Greater Detroit Chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners, told Crain’s Detroit.

But Jennifer Gratz, executive director of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, said the goal of the measure is to create a more inclusive environment.

“We believe that all people should be judged based on character, merit and accomplishments — not skin color or gender. I, for one, do not want to be given a preference over my brother solely because I am female — yet this is exactly what those who oppose the MCRI believe is necessary,” said Gratz.

Gratz was a plaintiff in a 1997 case that charged the undergraduate admission policy at the University of Michigan with racial discrimination. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled two years ago that the school’s policy was unconstitutional.

If passed, the initiative would not affect federal programs or those of private employers in the state. Still, opponents, such as the chamber, worry that if the initiative becomes law, then some private-sector companies might decide to follow its guidelines.

“It really threatens all of the progress that has been made over the past 40 years toward the goal of assuming equal access for all,” said Englehart.

“And the chamber’s mission is to create an opportunity for business success through promoting membership, diversity and advocacy. Diversity is one of our main pillars, as is membership and helping people become successful in business. This whole initiative flies in the face of that.”   

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