Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

A Tangle over Euphemisms Semantics Didn't Trump American Values in Michigan Ruling

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

A Tangle over Euphemisms Semantics Didn't Trump American Values in Michigan Ruling

Article excerpt


Anodyne euphemisms often indicate an uneasy conscience or a political anxiety. Or both, as when the 1976 Democratic platform chose "compensatory opportunity" as a way of blurring the fact that the party favored racial discrimination in the form of preferences and quotas for certain government-favored minorities in such matters as government hiring, contracting and college admissions.

Since then, "affirmative action" has become the ubiquitous semantic evasion. Last Tuesday, however, in her 58-page dissent that she summarized from the bench to emphasize her strenuous disapproval of the court's ruling in a case from Michigan, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, entered the euphemism sweepstakes. She suggested adopting the phrase "race- sensitive admissions policies." Not that Michiganders are apt to be mollified by such semantic ether designed to tranquilize them regarding practices they correctly consider discordant with American values.

In 2003, the Supreme Court upheld the use of race as one factor in evaluating applicants for admission to the University of Michigan's law school. In response, three years later 58 percent of Michigan voters amended their state's Constitution to forbid discriminating against or giving "preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin." Michigan, like the seven other states (New Hampshire, Florida, Nebraska, Oklahoma, California, Arizona and Washington) that have similar bans on one remedy for supposedly inadequate diversity in enrollments, can continue to use other ways to rectify this.

Although the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment says "No state shall . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws," the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals divided 8-7 in ruling that Michigan's constitutional amendment mandating equal treatment violates the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal protection. It reached this, shall we say, counterintuitive conclusion by reasoning as follows:

The amended state Constitution "restructures" the political process in a way that complicates the task of Michiganders who favor racial preferences. Rather than just persuade the administrators of Michigan's institutions of post-secondary education to adopt racial preferences, they first must mount a statewide campaign to amend Michigan's Constitution. If this reasoning is correct, the U.S. Constitution requires that states make it as easy as possible for their governments to do what the 14th Amendment, if its plain language is properly construed, forbids. …

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