With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Column: The Grosse Pointe Gross Point System

What goes around comes around--in the same circle. In the 1960s I was a political science student, first at Michigan State University, then at the University of Missouri. I observed a process of applying points to one's race up close in local media as well as in the literature of my academic discipline. Political Scientist Norman C. Thomas of the University of Michigan wrote a book entitled, Rule 9: Politics, Administration, and Civil Rights (1966). The book chronicled and analyzed a major policy controversy in the state of Michigan. The fight involved "open housing" policies. Perhaps the methods realtors in Detroit suburbs used to select homebuyers--and even their motivations--provided the model that has been more recently used at the undergraduate admissions office of Thomas's University of Michigan.

In the Spring of 1960 as a result of a court case, the realtors association of very affluent suburban Grosse Pointe (the association brought together realtors from all the Grosse Pointes--Farms, Woods, etc.), just to the northeast of the city of Detroit, was "exposed." They were shown to have been using some rather "questionable" techniques when determining if a particular homebuyer would qualify to purchase a home in one of the Grosse Pointes. They had a rather "normal" goal of wishing to "preserve property values," by having only people with certain qualifications buy homes. They came up with an "ingenious" system for determining an individual's qualification as a buyer. The Grosse Pointe Brokers Association (GPBA) freely admitted what they were doing in open court, and they found the court upholding their actions. However, the revelations hit the local Detroit public media and then they quickly became a national news story. The Michigan political leadership was not amused, especially Governor G. Mennen Williams, a liberal Democrat and a resident of Grosse Pointe. He was quickly in touch with the state attorney general, Paul Adams, another notable liberal Democrat. Adams and a subordinate of his, Lawrence Gubow, the state corporations and securities commissioner, concluded that Gubow had the authority to contrive an administrative rule that would prohibit discrimination in housing sales. He held hearings, and he promulgated Rule 9.

However, things are not always that simple. The realtors responded with a court case resulting in a 7-0 state supreme court decision saying the rule was a violation of powers held by the commissioner, that such a provision as in the rule could only be adopted by legislative action. Paul Adams had been appointed (and then elected) to the court, but he did not participate in the 1963 case.

After several false starts, open housing legislation was passed in a subsequent legislative sessions when Republican Governor George Romney gave his support for the action. The Grosse Pointe system could no longer be implemented. Not ironically, George Romney became U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Affairs in the Nixon Administration.

The Grosse Pointe system became known as the Grosse Pointe Point system, and thereby it serves as an interesting precedent for the system used by the University of Michigan in recent years.

Under the system a realtor would find a potential purchaser for a home. Then a private investigator would be hired to make a report on the person. The report would be given to a committee of three brokers and they would take information from the report and use it to assign points to the buyer. Points would be given for matters such as the "extent to which" the buyer was "Americanized," along with his "general standing." This included references to the "swarthiness of appearance," "friends," "dress," "religion," "education," "use of grammar," and "accent."

Norman C. Thomas writes: "The screening process was not required for persons of Northern European ancestry, e.g., Anglo-Saxons, Germans, French, Scandinavians, etc. Out of a maximum 100 points, Poles had to score 55 to pass, Southern Europeans 65, and Jews 85. Negroes and Orientals were not eligible for consideration, their disqualification being automatic." If a house was sold to a buyer who did not survive with a favorable point total, the realtor would forfeit all sales commissions to the association--that is if they wished to continue to do business as part of the GPBA.

Times change, but same thinking remains. Fortunately the final word is also consistent over decades. The Grosse Pointe Point system has fallen at the hands of correct thinking liberal and moderate forces. Colleagues and soul mates of the same Michigan liberals who brought down Grosse Pointe Points also brought Grosse Pointe thinking to the admissions office of the University of Michigan. In the admissions process points were assigned to applicants for a variety of factors including their race. Discrimination on the basis of race was resurrected. But now because of correct thinking conservatives and moderates on the U.S. Supreme Court another race point system has fallen.

As a Michigan State grad I only suggest that the University of Michigan now try to revive their corrupt Basketball program by scoring some points on another court. I suspect they won't be successful with points there either--for many years to come.

In earlier columns for HNN I wrote in praise of the Veterans Preference point system used by the Civil Service. I believed that "point" system had merit because it was simple to understand, and that it gave rewards specifically to people who were qualified, to people who had served their country, and had suffered lost job opportunities during that service. I also indicated how I (a white person, male and 40 years old) had presumably received the rewards of an affirmative action system that required universities to cast the net very very wide as they sought job candidates. In my university's search for minority job applicants they had cast their net over me among many others, and I got the job. I suggested that everyone should be willing to support programs that strive to find applicants from a diverse lot. I still think a point system could be supportable in some circumstances, ergo ones like the military preference system--when all applicants must first be "qualified," and when there is a demonstration that the applicant has specifically suffered opportunity losses due to his or her condition. Perhaps it could be used where in the past there was a definite discrimination pattern. But lacking a legitimate reason for individual preferences based upon racial backgrounds, it is best that affirmative action emphasize the "affirmative" and not negative labeling of peoples. Of course in adopting the rationale of the University of Michigan cases we ask for more confusion in the future, but endemic in all our policy making, as Deborah Stone emphasizes as the main point in her book Policy Paradox, is the notion of ambiguity and unclear political mandates.