Why Prop 2 passed in Michigan

In the wake of Proposition 2, Michigan’s anti-affirmative action amendment to the state constitution, I’m happy to see that there are some places where folks have the ability to express their reactions, emotions and fears about the situation. I encourage groups and communities to continue offering more spaces for this to happen.

I give props to the individuals, organizations and donors who contributed sweat and tears to fighting Prop 2, especially because I deliberately chose not to get involved with the organizing efforts. I understand the sacrifices that have to happen for this type of campaign, and I commend your commitment to preserving affirmative action.

Thus, it’s encouraging to learn that some circles are already beginning to brainstorm new visions for the future, despite losing affirmative action at the state level. I hope legal experts are taking up the hard task of challenging the constitutionality of Prop 2’s consequences. I also hope that there have been spaces to openly evaluate and critique the anti-Prop 2 organizing efforts. Perhaps this is happening behind closed doors, perhaps people are still dealing, or even still perhaps these conversations are just taking place informally. Whatever the case, I haven’t really come across a full analysis or critique of the organizing strategy against Prop 2. We certainly need to understand how to strengthen the way we organize before moving on to the next issue, campaign, or initiative.

So, I humbly offer my armchair analysis of why we failed to stop Proposal 2. By no means do I claim to have full understanding of what took place, and I definitely do not claim to be an expert organizer. I only offer some reflections based on a set of previous experiences with affirmative action and organizing in Michigan.

  1. Messaging. To my understanding, the main coalition organizing against Prop 2 chose to target their messaging strategy to white female voters. There was a huge push to drive in the fact that white women are the #1 beneficiaries of affirmative action. (To be fair, there were some initiatives to target specific communities, like fact sheets explaining how various ethnic communities would be impacted, as well as some pretty good commercials found on YouTube with messaging for specific communities.) Perhaps in a different context, the strategy to focus on white female voters might have really worked. Unfortunately, Michigan is still in an economic recession where working class folks, namely blue-collar males, are losing their jobs, or are constantly facing the threat of being laid off. A strategy targeting their wives is a hard sell, no matter how much these women would like equal opportunity. I am not necessarily advocating that the main messaging efforts should be to target blue-collar workers because I understand that campaign resources are limited. However, there needs to be a recognition that this is the reality in which that folks are living. Business and corporate leaders took a stand for affirmative action because they recognize the value of diversity at the workplace (thank goodness), but how are we going to talk to workers, face-to-face, during these economic conditions? Perhaps more importantly, who is going to talk to them?
  2. One-on-one conversations. A fellow organizer once said, “You can delete an email, but you can’t delete a conversation.” (Thanks for the quote, JB.) Talking to folks one-on-one is hard and tiring. You might not even change their minds. But maybe not right away. In my experience, most people just have a lot questions about how affirmative action works because there’s a lot of misunderstanding about it. For example, I still come across folks who think quotas are allowed in college admissions. I believe that most people just want to be able to express their own stories, and the ability for them to have that opportunity goes back to who is doing the messaging. Who is talking to them? Who is going to help personalize the issue?
  3. A state-wide student network. Prop 2 failed to pass in three counties: Wayne, Washtenaw and Ingham. While Wayne County is unique from the other two, I think the main reason this outcome happened was because these counties had universities and colleges with students organizing on the ground (i.e. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and Michigan State University). The same thing happened in California precincts during Proposal 209, which was the California version of Prop 2 also spearheaded by Ward Connerly. Students have the capacity to be any electoral campaign’s foot soldiers because they have the time, passion and creativity to talk to their peers and families. Students can do the one-on-one messaging. The ultra-conservatives already know this. Imagine a state-wide network of campuses, connecting Michigan State University, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor/Dearborn/Flint, Eastern Michigan University, Western, Grand Valley State, Central Michigan University, Wayne State, University of Detroit-Mercy, Oakland University, etc etc etc etc. Michigan campuses had an opportunity to create a powerful student network to knock down Prop 2.

At best, I hope this post will open a dialogue for others to offer their own perspectives.There are probably more elements to evaluate. I imagine that funding plays a role in a campaign to fight a ballot initiative. Connerly et al. went to California, Washington and Michigan with their anti-affirmative action proposals, and I doubt these are the only places they’ll visit.


  1. I think you’re exactly right–especially on the outreach stuff. for example, i don’t know why bamn keeps going to ann arbor and not to flint or even ypsi. preaching to the converted at u of m–and those who aren’t converted aren’t going to be converted, you know? the dialouge is already happening on u of m campus–whereas in flint or ypsi or saginaw or any of those other places–the conversation hasn’t even begun.

    I also took issue with targeting white females–although on EMU’s campus there was a nice group of women–working class poor white women–who were doing some work. That was really nice to see–but on the whole, when I think of targetting white women to support this measure, I think of jennifer gatz–presuming white women will support an action that is supposedly all about race is kinda silly and self defeating. I think the real work should have been done in urban communities and working class poor communities…

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, BFP. I think you are right about the where more of the on-ground work should have been taking place.

    You also reminded me to clarify something that I left out of the original post. The analysis I offer in this post is not meant to include BAM-N’s role at all. I’m not familiar with what your relationship to BAM-N is, but In my experience they do more harm than good. I know this may not sound “productive” to some, but I simply cannot trust their leadership. It’s too bad our own state of organizing in Detroit/Michigan isn’t grounded enough to make them irrelevant because I have several friends who have/are involved in the group. Still, I would even include them as a 4th point and say that their presence is one of the reasons Prop 2 passed.

    Goodspeedupdate.com has done a thorough job of keeping up with BAM-N activities and providing information about why they are so shady.

  3. My friend Dumi posted a link to your post from my website and I appreciate your analysis. I organized college students to do affirmative action work but there is there is a big conception that if you just get students to do foot work, your chances to succeed will improve greatly. But when students have 2-3 jobs, classes, exams, student organizations, they don’t have as much time to do organizing work as one would think.

    And because we don’t have mass transit and our freeways are inefficient, who is going to drive students around, pay for their gas, and make sure that folks are not forced to drop out of school because they gave so much energy to the campaign?

    I’ll end with a question. I gathered from your post that you do used to do organizing work, so why did you make a deliberate decision to not help out in the organizing efforts to defeat proposal 2?

  4. Thanks for reading and posting. You’ve posed really great questions that get at the heart of organizing. Those are realities that students face: paying off student loans, staying in school to get that degree, etc. And that makes student organizing a real challenge. I think what I was trying to convey was that it would have been great to see more of an effort to reach those other schools. Now, as you know, I wasn’t involved in the student aspect, especially since I’m no longer a student, so I don’t know what kind of discussions and decisions student organizers had to undergo. I don’t sense that students had much of working connection with OUM. Perhaps there were a lot of other things going on on campuses, but I think you understand the urgency of PRop 2 and losing affirmative action that it would have been great to see a larger mobilization of student forces against Prop 2.

    If you do’nt mind, I’m going to entertain your final question via email. The response is entirely too long to post by way of the comment area.

  5. steph

    Hello! So I sent [wsoftheart] an email with some thoughts and she suggested that I add a comment to the blog!
    Absolutely, there are critiques about One United Michigan’s campaign. Which is good. People should share thoughts/comments/ideas about what happened and where we should go next.
    Everyone within the campaign worked extremely hard. I am so proud to have been a part of the team. People worked together in local areas around the state that had never worked together before. It was amazing to see new relationships being built between individuals and organizations across the state.
    With the Asian American community, much Prop 2 education happened that I never really thought would actually happen– visits to Asian American houses of worship?? Phonebanks to Asian American voters?? Targeted mailer to 12000 Asian American voters?! Unheard of in Michigan.
    Who knows what we could have done with more resources or a greater sense of urgency out and about in the community, eariler on.
    To clarify a few things from the post:
    a) Many one-on-one conversations were had. A lot of the canvass work was done by coalition partners like America Votes, APRI, NAACP, Democratic Coordinated Campaign, … we also did targeted OUM canvasses in October and beyond. Every county did phonebanks on some sort of regular basis. Perhaps more conversations would have been good, but happy to know that we did pour a good amount of energy into these.
    b) As far as a statewide student network, we did actually build one, with much help from LCCR (www.civilrights.org) and USSA (www.usstudents.org). Campuses all across the state were active in advocating for a NO vote on Proposal 2 and doing education work around affirmative action. UM, MSU, EMU, WSU of course… but also GVSU and WMU on the west side of the state, SVSU in the bay, CMU smack-dab in the middle, and NMU up in the UP, with folks at local community colleges doing what they could as well! I was thoroughly impressed with the network that was built. National Take Affirmative Action Day activities on October 18th were very strong here in Michigan in areas we haven’t seen much activity in on this issue before. We also had a statewide student training, had a couple statewide student calls, etc etc. Obviously it would have been great to do even MORE of this, same with everything else. But I was very very impressed with the work that college student leaders picked up around the state all OVER the state! 🙂 I was lucky to have worked with awesome students in places I hadn’t even travelled to before.
    Let the conversations continue! I wonder what history will tell about us. I think that it will tell that we built a great coalition, that the economic situation played a huge role in our defeat, and the deceptive campaign that the MCRI ran played also played a huge role as well, making it seem like affirmative action was an issue of black students taking white students’ opportunity.
    All in all, as a colleague at LCCR stated on Election night, “You can’t change a culture with a political campaign.”
    There is much work to be done in Michigan.

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