Hartford Memorial Baptist Church
January 15, 2006
I want to thank Reverend Adams and the entire congregation for again inviting me to join you for worship, and to share my thoughts with you on this special day.
I’ve been looking forward to this morning because I’m eager to talk with you about the paths we are venturing down as a country, and where they might lead us. That you have invited me to speak on the birthday of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. makes the day all the more poignant.
As residents of southeastern Michigan, we live in an amazingly rich region in terms of its citizens:
- The nearly 5 million people who live here speak some 125 different languages.
- The city of Detroit has a larger percentage of African Americans than any other U.S. city outside of Gary, Indiana.
- We are home to the nation’s largest Arabic community — descendants of Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria — many of them living and working in Dearborn.
- Just down the road is Hamtramck, which has long been an enclave of Polish immigrants but is increasingly popular with Muslims from Yemen, Bangladesh and Bosnia.
- Every day, you hear both the pealing bells of the Catholic churches and the Islamic calls to prayer from the mosques.
- A few miles from here in southwestern Detroit is Mexicantown, with its families from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Central America, and Mexico.
- To our north, the cities of Troy and Rochester Hills have growing communities of Asians drawn from India, China, the Philippines, and Korea.
This is an impressive mosaic of humanity.
And it is to Ann Arbor that the best and brightest students of this multicultural region — including a good many from Hartford Memorial Baptist — travel for a superior education at the University of Michigan.
These sons and daughters of Troy and Detroit, Dearborn and Hamtramck, also learn their first real lessons in diversity when they reach our campus and interact with one another, often for the first time in their lives.
Because despite our deep diversity in southeastern Michigan, we are a terribly segregated region — the most segregated in the United States, in fact.
Detroit, our country’s second-blackest community, is bordered by Livonia, the whitest big city in America.
Our neighborhoods are typically either all black or all white, and it follows that our public schools are just as polarized.
We are not alone, as racial and ethnic segregation remains a disturbing fact of life in the United States.
And so it is at the University of Michigan — and other universities and colleges across the country — where the word “diversity” takes on true meaning through the complexity of our student body. With our doors open to talented students of all backgrounds, higher education — especially public higher education — is the great bridge-builder.
It is a role we welcome and continually seek to improve.
Yet for all that we are doing to develop graduates who are equipped to succeed in a multicultural world, and even with the U-of-M’s successful U.S. Supreme Court fight to defend affirmative action and the use of race in admissions, we are under attack.
And that is something that should concern everyone in this sanctuary.
Let me paint the current picture for you and explain why I am so concerned about the climate we are operating in as we work to produce graduates prepared for a diverse world.
We know that affirmative action works, and the Supreme Court provided us with moderate guidelines that we are following. We know that creating a diverse student body makes for a stronger educational experience. We have an impressive and growing body of social science research that demonstrates the positive educational outcomes linked with diverse class environments.
Students learn better in a diverse class. The teaching environment is more enlightening. The discussion is livelier. These students are more open to perspectives that differ from their own, and they are better prepared to become active players in our society.
I wish we lived in a society free of inequities, with fully integrated neighborhoods, churches and schools. I know this congregation works to correct these imbalances, with innovative programs in community outreach and economic development, and with your support of college students, and you are to be commended for your work.
But we all know there is so much more to do before we can say we have succeeded.
Affirmative action is one — just one — of the many different tools we can use to help make a difference in society. We defended its use all the way to the high court because we believe it helps us achieve a rich student body that mirrors society, and a majority of justices agreed with us.
We must pay attention to race.
We must pay attention to ethnicity.
We must pay attention to socioeconomic class.
If we look away, the future is bleak, and one need only visit the state of California to see what happens when we go down a road that ignores these factors.
Let me give you a quick summary of the state of affairs in California.
In 1995, the Board of Regents of the great University of California system voted to ban affirmative action in admissions, a decision that was followed by a statewide voter referendum that applied that same ban to all public bodies in California. Out went any consideration of race, gender, ethnicity, and the like in public employment.
In banning affirmative action, the UC Board of Regents also directed UC administrators to achieve a diverse student body. Affirmative action had been a critical tool to UC, and without it, administrators found themselves challenged to admit underrepresented students of color, particularly at UC-Berkeley, their most selective campus.
Many, many steps were taken to recast the methods UC used to admit African American and Latino students.
They strengthened outreach to high schools. They put more emphasis on achievement tests. They intensified reviews of admissions applications, and asked students to share more about the obstacles they faced in preparing for college. UC opened its doors to the top-performing four percent of students from all California high schools, and took in more transfer students from California community colleges.
It has been a massive, lengthy undertaking by thoughtful leaders, and you know what?
It hasn’t worked. It simply hasn’t worked.
The state of California — a state that is the most diverse in this country and which represents the fifth-largest economy in the world — is educating fewer and fewer underrepresented minority students, at a time when its citizenry is growing more and more diverse.
Here are the numbers: In 1995, before the ban on affirmative action, underrepresented minorities made up 38 percent of California high school graduates and 21 percent of UC’s entering freshman class. In the fall of 2004, underrepresented minority students represented 45 percent of high school graduates, but had fallen to just 19 percent of incoming freshmen.
And the statistics were even more grim at the most selective campuses of Berkeley and UCLA.
The gap is widening, my friends, not closing, and it is particularly troubling when you consider that African Americans and Latinos make up more and more of the public high school graduates in California.
Here is one more sobering figure. Of that incoming freshman class at UC-Berkeley and UCLA — schools that, like Michigan, are highly selective — a combined total of eighty-three African American men were enrolled. Only eighty-three black men starting college at two of our country’s leading universities. And half of them were there because they were attending on athletic scholarships.
That number alone should make everyone in this great house of worship stand up and demand change.
Because if our public universities — particularly selective schools like Michigan, Berkeley, and Virginia, known for preparing tomorrow’s decision-makers, leaders like Pastor Adams — if these universities do not produce graduates of all backgrounds, our nation will stumble as a global leader.
America’s system of higher education is the envy of the world. If we are leaving behind talented black students, talented women, talented Latinos and Native Americans, we are abandoning this country’s future, and I will not allow the University of Michigan to be party to that.
We simply have too much work to do to move forward.
I learned an important lesson on the steps of the Supreme Court: The power of our voice matters.
Our persistence, and our unwillingness to accept anything less than broad diversity on our campuses, sends a strong message in this country.
It was Dr. King who told us, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Our greatest challenge today is a ballot initiative to end affirmative action in the state of Michigan. It is grossly misnamed the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, and I believe the political debate surrounding it will divide our communities, when our efforts should be focused on constructive ways to build broad diversity within the Supreme Court guidelines.
I feel strongly about working hard to educate Michigan citizens about the serious implications of such a ballot decision. For example, here is a potential outcome that surprises many people: The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, if approved by voters, would even prohibit our highly successful efforts to recruit women faculty in science and engineering — just at a time when our country needs all the talented science professionals we can get! I think you will agree with me that this outcome is not civil, and it is far from right.
I want to share the hard lessons of California, where the goal of a diverse student body is slipping into oblivion. I want people to hear Dick Atkinson, the UC president emeritus who lived through these changes, when he says: “Any state tempted to emulate the example of California should think long and hard about it.”
I urge you to learn more about the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative and its serious intended — and perhaps unintended — consequences.
I urge you also to share your stories about diversity and the many ways that people of all backgrounds make our society stronger.
I guarantee you, regardless of whether this flawed initiative passes or fails in Michigan, its organizers will move on to another state, and we cannot allow the scenario unfolding in California to be repeated elsewhere.
Beginning tomorrow, our campus community will take part in dozens of programs that commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. King. The theme for our symposium is “A Time to Break Silence,” in the spirit of Dr. King’s work in speaking out about injustice, whether in our backyard or halfway around the world.
I want our students never to forget his words: “The day we see the truth and cease to speak is the day we begin to die.”
I began this morning by taking us through metro Detroit’s diverse yet segregated communities, and explaining how the University of Michigan is a bridge for connecting us as a society still divided by race, class, and ethnicity.
As a university, we cannot do this alone.
In ruling in the University’s favor, the Supreme Court said, “The path to leadership must be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity.”
Please remain by our side. Remain vigilant and vocal, and together we will continue to forge that path for generations to come.