Liberals Need to Pivot on Race Conscious Affirmative Action



This post was inspired by a story about vocal opposition in California to a proposed bill restoring race conscious affirmative action (AA) in public university admissions.  Public opposition came mainly from groups representing parts of the Asian community.  Just as I started writing about this story, the U.S. Supreme Court announced a decision to uphold a Michigan voter approved measure over-turning that state’s race conscious AA policies.

This may be a bit confusing, so let’s state it another way. In 1996, Californians voted to ban race conscious college admissions.  When Democrats in the State Assembly sought, recently, to pass a bill over-turning the 1996 measure, segments of the Asian population strongly opposed it, fearing it would lessen their access to public higher education in California. Just a few days later, in a separate set of events, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of voters in Michigan to over turn that state’s race conscious college admissions policies.

The Supreme Court story was of course not buried on page seven. It was in headlines across the nation. The California story, while front page in the LA Times and Sacramento Bee, received much less attention in the rest of the country.

The California story merits at least equal time.  It is a vivid reminder just how divisive AA policies have been since they moved from being “process based” to “outcome based,” and, at the same time, race conscious.  When it turned out that positive, well intentioned affirmative actions to level the playing field and equalize opportunity, produced disappointing results, AA became more result oriented, and openly race conscious. To many, including some liberals, AA took on the flavor of the very injustices it was designed to eradicate.
Result and race conscious AA split not only liberals and conservatives, but (further) fragmented the Democratic Party coalition of working class whites and poor minorities.

The California story, together with the Supreme Court decision a few days ago in the Michigan case, suggests that much more consideration needs to be given to race neutral, and potentially more effective, alternatives to race conscious AA.  An obvious candidate is socio-economic based AA.  Socio-economic based AA allows factors such as parental income and education to be used in hiring and college admission decisions, along with test scores, GPA and other ‘merit” based factors.

In a 2003 decision, Grutter v. Bollinger, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the limited use of racial criteria to achieve diversity in college admissions. That decision was not overturned in the recent Michigan case.  The controversial policy received qualified support in the highest Court in 2003, albeit with a razor thin, 5-4 margin.

Nonetheless, since AA became openly race conscious, it’s been painfully difficult to argue that the practice is not, paradoxically and oddly, in conflict with the history and laws that are the foundation of the racial civil rights movement: The constitution’s equal protection clause, the plain language of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Martin Luther King’s iconic and stirring words about judging people based on character rather than skin color, and decades of toil by Jewish civil rights advocates to eliminate the scourge of  (often transparent quotas) in the admissions policies of elite universities.

There is surely an Orwellian quality to arguing that in order to remedy the effects of race discrimination, we need to pursue some form of race discrimination; like the argument of the Vietnam era military officer who said “we had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

The California and Michigan stories also raise this question: “Why is resistance so strong among many liberals to race neutral remedies for inequality, poverty, and lack of opportunity — even to an idea like socio-economic based AA, which has already shown great promise. Why have so many liberals, Democrats, and black civil rights leaders doubled down on race conscious AA, rather than turn to arguably more effective and surely less divisive solutions?

Perhaps because they feel under siege.  They probably are!  It’s hard to be conciliatory or magnanimous about the current Supreme Court’s decision eroding the 1965 Voting Rights Act, or about shameful efforts by states to make voting more difficult. When you think you’re in a war, you feel compelled to adopt the same uncompromising posture as the other side, or perish. Sadly, civil rights advocates may be right about all that. Equally sad, that is precisely how wars escalate.

But the motive of voters who want to repeal race conscious AA, especially ones in very blue states, like California and Washington, are complex. Many probably felt they were taking a pro “civil rights” stance when they voted in Michigan to ban the policy. The Washington State “anti affirmative action” measure which won voter approval in that “blue” state had this question for voters on the ballot: “Shall government be prohibited from discriminating or granting preferential treatment based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in public employment, education, and contracting?”  Why would a solid liberal, pro civil rights voter not answer that question affirmatively?  That’s the core of the conundrum and paradox here; and the Orwellian aspect of race conscious AA.

Not that AA based on socio economic factors is without principled or legal draw backs.  The most obvious objection is that it (too) is contrary to “merit” based hiring and admissions. Why should a student with a 3.0 GPA and an SAT score of 500, whose family is poor, be chosen over an applicant from a rich family with 3.9_700 credentials?  That’s a good rhetorical question. But if you favor actions to reduce poverty, inequality and lack of opportunity, for people of all races, as I do, it’s a lot easier to accept and defend an approach that doesn’t destroy a village in order to save it.

What’s more, according to a respected Century Foundation study, many public universities have been able to maintain or exceed black and Latino student enrollments by using income as a factor in admissions, including in some states where (race conscious) affirmative action was banned.


2 thoughts on “Liberals Need to Pivot on Race Conscious Affirmative Action

  1. Steve Glucoft

    As always great analysis Irv Debbie and I in Kauai for next week- we will be in San Diego weekend of 4th for wedding on her side so hopefully we could get together in that time frame Best day my friend and great cousin😃😊 Stephen

    Sent from my iPhone



  2. Gerry O'Keefe

    The Court’s decision follows a trend that has been sustained in this country since the mid-80s. So let the pivot be to class-based preferences based upon financial need. One suspects many of the same students would benefit and that my presumed effect will only grow over time as demographic imperatives drive “Caucasian” toward minority status. Off course the people will need to fund this approach and we must be sober in our recognition of this more difficult goal.

    As sad as our current political disfunction is in this moment of our history, I remain a defiant Rooseveltian optimist for our republic in the long-run. A core reason is the new energy and vision our “minority” populations will bring to the table as they assume the reigns of power. But for healthcare (a significant caveat as history will tally) Congress has blocked President Obama. It will not be able to sustain the angry middle-aged white male veto over presidents Hernandez or Ngyen or Hillary (sic).

    Irv, did I hear correctly at your retirement in Olmypia that you law clerked for Warren Burger before going to MIT for your PhD? Victor Moore and I were both at your send off event, but he didn’t recall hearing that statement. Anyway, we saw an exciting Mariners victory last night at Safeco together. We both wondered why the heck you don’t join us up here for the glorious part of the year at least.

    Thanks again for sharing your talent with me. The picture “makes” my office, lighting it up with color and a springtime sense of possibilities.



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