AT FIRST GLANCE, you might think, as I did, that the letter from Rep. John Dingell of Michigan to a fellow American--a law-abiding American--wasn't his but a parody. Surely, someone who fancies himself a satirist wrote the letter.
After all, would Dingell (or any member of Congress) actually write a letter commanding the recipient, who lives in another state, to "go home and stay there, you're not welcome here"? Surely, someone jests! But, no, the letter happens not to be a parody. Dingell wrote it, or he at least signed it. You can look it up at house.gov/dingell.
What, or rather who, has driven Dingell to prepare, publish and mail such a stupid letter? Ward Connerly of California. In 1996, Connerly led the successful campaign to outlaw racial preferences in his state. That campaign used the initiative process available under the California Constitution by which voters can make law themselves by approving a ballot proposition. Connerly then went up the coast to Washington and used its initiative process to invite the people of that state to forbid preferences. And so they did.
Now, Connerly has seen that Michigan, too, has an initiative process, and, as Dingell has noticed, he has stepped foot inside the state and is helping to organize an effort to put before Michigan voters in 2004 an initiative similar to those approved in California and Washington--one that would outlaw preferences in public education, employment and contracting. Connerly is persuaded that the issue of preferences is especially salient in the state, the Supreme Court just last month having approved their use by a 5-to-4 decision in the Michigan law school admissions case.
Dingell supports that decision and preferences generally. Given that, you would think that if he were at all to engage Connerly, he might have explained why he thinks a "Michigan Civil Rights Initiative" is a bad idea.
But Dingell wasn't going to engage in a civil conversation. People who say state-sponsored racial classifications are an issue worthy of public debate are trying to open what the congressman arrogantly regards as a closed question. Such people are--Dingell's words to Connerly--"stirring up trouble where none exists."
And Connerly is especially to be condemned because he isn't from Michigan. "We have no need," Dingell says to Connerly, "for itinerant publicity seekers, nonresident troublemakers or self-aggrandizing out-of-state agitators." One is tempted to say no defender of segregation ever quite packed so much on the theme of outside agitators into a single sentence.
Dingell's message to Connerly--stay out of Michigan, your views aren't welcome here--is sharply at odds with the best understanding of American liberty. We Americans have the right to travel freely, to express our views and to participate (save for running for office and voting) in the affairs of any state or community. Which means that Ward Connerly can go to Michigan and campaign for an initiative outlawing preferences. It also means that Jesse Jackson (another nonresident) can go to Michigan and campaign against it.
In his letter, Dingell's arrogance leads him to speak in behalf of the people of his state. "The people of Michigan have a simple message to you: go home." And: "Michiganders do not take kindly to your ignorant meddling in our affairs." But Michiganders may see matters differently. Recent surveys show majorities opposed to race-based admissions. Maybe they would vote against the state's using race to allocate scarce opportunities if they had the chance.
It is hard to see what Dingell thought he could accomplish by writing the kind of letter he did. Far from "staying home," Connerly seems only more dedicated to pressing his case in Michigan. "Thank you for such a warm and hospitable welcome to Michigan," he began his reply to Dingell. It will take roughly 320,000 signatures for the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative to appear on next year's ballot.
Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.