By John Hood
Raleigh, NC – In its daily newsletter called “The Morning,” the New York Times had this to say about California voters defeating a proposition that would have reinstated racial preferences in state hiring, contracting, and university admissions:
“Polls that ask broadly about affirmative-action programs for racial minorities find most Americans to be in favor of them. Polls that specifically ask whether employers and colleges should take race into account when making decisions find that most Americans say no. These two patterns are contradictory.”
The first two statements are correct. Most people, including most North Carolinians, continue to believe affirmative action is an important and effective way to reduce the disadvantages some of our fellow citizens face in pursuing their dreams. And most people, including most North Carolinians, continue to believe it is both wrong and counterproductive for government to make decisions based on race or ethnicity.
But these positions are hardly contradictory. They are compatible. They reflect the fundamental principle — articulated by the best of us, and violated by the worst of us — that we are all equal in the eyes of God, that we should all be equal under the laws of man, and that we should treat others as we ourselves would want to be treated.
When employers, governments, schools, and other institutions go to great lengths to “cast their net widely,” to make sure those historically excluded from opportunities are informed and prepared to pursue them, that is affirmative action in its original and constructive definition.
When employers, governments, schools, and other institutions use race or ethnicity to decide who will be hired or served, however, that is discrimination. Depending on the institution and context involved, it is either flatly illegal or at least fraught with peril. That some call racial preferences “affirmative action” does not equate the two.
Moreover, trying to interpret everything I just said in ideological or racialist terms — as if I am insisting on the distinction between racial preferences and affirmative action because I am a white conservative — is not just insulting and obnoxious. It is factually incorrect. It will badly mislead you.
The practice had badly misled progressives for decades. And it explains why progressives from California and beyond just wasted gobs of time and money trying to reintroduce racial preferences in a left-leaning, ethnically diverse state that does not want them.
Californians are among the bluest voters in the United States. Joe Biden won nearly 64% of the 2020 vote for president. The Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, won 62% of the vote in 2018. The state’s congressional delegation and legislative makeup are heavily Democratic.
But 57% of Californians voted against the racial-preferences proposition on this year’s ballot. In 1996, when whites made up a larger share of the state’s electorate, voters enacted the original ban on racial preferences by a somewhat-smaller margin (54.5%). Basic math tells us millions of non-conservative and/or non-white Californians think racial preferences are bad, though they likely think affirmative action is good.
“Whenever the question of preferential treatment is fairly presented to the public, it is rejected decisively, and by all racial and ethnic groups,” writes Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity. “And rightly so: Asian Americans know that they are the frequent victims of university admission preferences, Latinos know that they are frequently the victims of government contracting preferences, and the groups that are ostensibly benefited frequently are hurt by them, too, because of the well-documented ‘mismatch’ effects.”
Unlike California, North Carolina does not have a citizen-initiative process. Unless the General Assembly decides to place a constitutional amendment banning racial preferences on the ballot, North Carolinians will not have the chance to make their voices heard directly on the issue, as Californians now have multiple times.
Such a step is not necessary, however. Legislation and litigation are sufficient to the task. North Carolina has already largely substituted poverty status for race and ethnicity in K-12 admissions. Our colleges and universities should do the same, rather than waiting for a court to order them to.