Issuing its ruling just before the Fourth of July weekend, a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals struck down Proposition 2, Michigan’s 2006 initiative banning racial preferences in education, public employment, and contracting. Employing the Orwellian reasoning that so often characterizes such decisions, the panel’s 2–1 ruling held that in passing a measure mandating that all citizens be treated equally by the state, Michigan’s electorate had violated the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. “The majority may not manipulate the channels of change in a manner that places unique burdens on issues of importance to racial minorities,” the majority opinion read. The ruling got short shrift in the national press: the New York Times ran the story on page ten, the Washington Post on page seven, and the Los Angeles Times on page 21, while the network newscasts ignored it entirely. But it is of enormous consequence, bearing not only on the nation’s future but also, at least potentially, on the electoral prospects of the Republican Party in next year’s election.
Race is the elephant in the great American mansion. No issue is so persistently with us, and nothing better defines who we are and who we aspire to be than our responses to it. In the heat of almost every presidential campaign, in one way or another, it surfaces. That was especially the case in 2008—both because of the extraordinary fact of Barack Obama’s candidacy and because of Obama’s troubling links to Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Acorn. The 2012 campaign is even more likely to be dominated by race: Obama will be desperate to shift the conversation from his record, and his acolytes will be ready as always to depict even the most reasoned criticism of his policies as racially motivated. This obviously presents enormous challenges for Obama’s Republican challengers. Yet it also offers opportunities, if they’re bold enough to seize them.
Why? Because vast numbers of Americans have come to recognize the “racism” charge as precisely what it is: not an expression of genuine moral outrage but a means of shutting down honest debate on vital topics—from crime, education, and the state of the family to welfare and entitlement programs. The charge has long been sufficient to silence or put on the defensive anybody who challenges policies dear to liberals’ hearts. But more recently, the smear has lost much of its terrible power, revealed, as George Will has put it, as “McCarthyism of the left—devoid of intellectual content, unsupported by data . . . a tactic for avoiding engagement with ideas.” Indeed, as Jonah Goldberg observes, among young sophisticates, the charge “That’s racist” has grown so shopworn that it’s achieved the status of a comedic catchphrase on hip TV shows.
The emergence of the Tea Party movement—or, more precisely, liberals’ hysterical reaction to it—finally emboldened many to start fighting back. For now the charge was being tossed about more promiscuously than ever, aimed at ordinary Americans solely because they had the temerity to oppose policies they believed damaging to the nation and its traditions; Americans, in short, acting in the best tradition of democratic citizenship. That the racism charges leveled at Republicans and Tea Partiers were false could hardly have been more evident. According to a 2008 poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg, a mere 3 percent of Republicans reported that they would refuse to vote for a black person for president, as opposed to 4 percent of Democrats. “As a black singer/songwriter performing my ‘America Tea Party Anthem’ and traveling with Tea Party Express, I have attended over 200 tea parties across the U.S.,” Lloyd Marcus, a spokesman for the group, said at an August 2010 press conference. “The attendees are not racists. They are decent, hard-working Americans who love their country. Tea Party patriots oppose President Obama’s policies, not his skin color.”
So it’s far less risky today than in the past to challenge the liberal race baiters, and racial preferences may be the most important area in which to take them on. Americans instinctively recoil at the notion that government should favor some citizens and punish others according to their skin color or ethnicity. It’s not for nothing that the language of Michigan’s Proposition 2—banning “preferential treatment to groups or individuals based on their race, gender, color, ethnicity or national origin for public employment, education, or contracting purposes”—is based on the language of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement.
Little wonder, then, that Proposition 2, also known as the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, passed in 2006 with 58 percent of the vote. Or that by then, nearly identical measures had easily passed in deep-blue California and Washington State, with support across the political spectrum. In Washington, polls showed the anti-affirmative-action initiative attracting not just 80 percent of Republicans, but 62 percent of independents and 41 percent of Democrats, despite the fact that the measure’s supporters were massively outspent by their opponents. The only state where such an initiative has ever failed is Colorado—a state that Barack Obama took by nine points—where it went down by a razor-thin margin of 50.6 percent to 49.4 percent in 2008.
In brief, a strong anti-affirmative-action stance would appear to be a clear political winner and also, and in a year when Republican contenders are jockeying to define themselves as defenders of conservative values, an opportunity to display commitment to a widely shared principle. That in Michigan the will of the voters has been thwarted by a pair of activist judges, both Clinton appointees, would seem to make the issue even more of a no-brainer. Yet as of this writing, none of the declared Republican presidential candidates has spoken out on the Michigan decision.
Their silence is unfortunately typical of recent Republican leaders on the issue of race. In fact, Ronald Reagan was the last Republican leader to oppose racial preferences forthrightly. “I’m old enough to remember when quotas existed in the U.S. for the purpose of discrimination,” he declared at his first press conference after assuming the presidency, “and I don’t want to see that happen again.” Reagan’s point man on the issue, assistant attorney general for civil rights William Bradford Reynolds, echoed that view, declaring affirmative action “demeaning because it says people are going to get ahead not because of what they can do but because of race.”
Contrast that with the Republican stance in recent years, exemplified by Ken Mehlman, the party’s national chairman during George W. Bush’s second term. In an attempt, as he saw it, to “expand the party’s base,” Mehlman engaged in systematic racial pandering. As the New York Times approvingly reported in a 2006 article, in frequent appearances before black audiences, Mehlman “apologized for what he described as the racially polarized politics of some Republicans over the past 25 years” and for “what civil rights leaders view as decades of racial politics practiced or countenanced by Republicans.” As condescending to blacks as it was deeply offensive to the party’s actual base, Mehlman’s misbegotten effort achieved nothing.
Is today’s crop of would-be nominees prepared to break with that lamentable past? The most worrisome in this regard is the putative front-runner. Given to caution in general, Mitt Romney has a special incentive to dodge the issue, and even, for safety’s sake, to make nice with the likes of Al Sharpton and other racial arsonists: his Mormonism. Committed as he is to a faith that until 1978 refused to ordain black men to the priesthood, Romney finds himself especially subject to the racism charge. In a March 2010 article entitled “Is Mitt Romney Racist?,” Harry C. Alford of the National Black Chamber of Commerce claimed that the former Massachusetts governor “has been known to make racial slurs,” explaining that Romney “recently referred to a construction boondoggle, The Big Dig, as a ‘Tar Baby’ he needs to avoid. Tar Baby—That’s an old school racial slur.” Patently unfair as this is to anyone who understands what “tar baby” actually means, there are sure to be more such accusations as the campaign gets into gear and as Obama’s people rely more and more on the race card.
Still, what matters is how the eventual Republican nominee responds to the race baiting. Romney and all of the other GOP candidates should be asked for their views on the Michigan ruling. The judges’ decision, disheartening as it is, provides a good test of character—and political guts—for the Republican Party. Will someone pass it?