Are Californians Turning Against Campus Race Preferences?

Back in September the College Republicans at the University of California, Berkeley, garnered a good deal of attention (including here and here) by sponsoring an anti-affirmative action bake sale. Part of their purpose was to call attention to legislation, SB 185, then waiting for Gov. Brown’s signature, that in clear violation of the state constitution’s prohibition against racial preferences (produced by Prop. 209, passed by 54% of the voters in 1996) would have allowed colleges to consider the race of applicants.

That signature never came. Gov. Brown vetoed the bill, stating accurately in his veto message that although he wholeheartedly agreed with its purpose it was the province of the courts, not the legislature, to determine the meaning of Prop. 209. Although I don’t doubt for a minute the governor’s deeply principled respect for the separation of powers, I suspect his decision may have also been influenced by the results of a Survey USA poll of Californians released on Sept. 26, a little over a week before his Oct. 8 veto.

500 Californians were asked: “When colleges are considering which students to accept and which to reject, should they be allowed … or not allowed … to consider a student’s” a) race, b) gender, c) ethnicity, or d) national origin. The results for each question were broken down by gender, age, race, political party, ideology, and region of the state. Even to those who have long followed the debate over racial preferences and thus know that nearly all polls reveal strong majority opposition to treating some better and others worse because of their race (the few exceptions are those that ask respondents their opinion of “affirmative action” without defining it or giving examples), the results of this Survey USA poll are surprisingly dramatic.

Respondents opposed allowing colleges to take race into account by a whopping 77% to 20%. Even more noteworthy, that opposition was consistent across all groups. 78% of whites were opposed, but so were 82% of blacks, 68% of Hispanics, and 85% of Asians. 73% of Republicans opposed allowing colleges to take race into account, but so did an even larger proportion of Democrats (78%). Conservatives opposed taking race into account by 73% to 21%, but so did even larger proportions of moderates (77%) and liberals (77%). And what about the liberal Bay Area? Its opposition to taking race into account (78%) was greater than Los Angeles (73%) and not much lower than the Central Valley (81%) or the Inland Empire (80%).

The numbers were virtually identical, and similarly consistent, regarding gender, ethnicity, and national origin. Respondents opposed allowing gender to be considered, for example, by 86% to 13%, with opposition among women (88%) even higher than among men (84%). 82% of Republicans opposed allowing gender to be considered, but so did 88% of Democrats and 90% of Independents. 80% of both whites and blacks opposed allowing ethnicity to be considered, but so did 68% of Hispanics. Asked specifically whether they thought SB 185, described as allowing “the University of California and California State Universities to consider race, gender, ethnicity, and national origin, along with other relevant factors,” should become law, respondents said no by 77% to 18%. Again, the opposition was consistent and widespread, not concentrated among whites, males, Republicans, and conservatives.

One might think that findings this consistently dramatic from a major polling organization about one of society’s most contentious issues would be as newsworthy as they are noteworthy. Not only was SB 185 on the governor’s desk when the poll results were released, but about a week earlier the Supreme Court had been asked to grant certiorari in Fisher v. University of Texas (discussed here and here), which critics of race preferences hope (and supporters fear) would allow the Court to reconsider its support of race preferences in Grutter v. Bollinger. But if Gov. Brown did see that poll, he may have been the only person who did.

It was commissioned by five prominent California news organizations — KABC-TV Los Angeles, KFSN-TV Fresno, KGTV-TV San Diego, and KPIX-TV San Francisco — at the height of the controversy over the Berkeley bake sale and the legislature’s attempt to flout Prop. 209, but I have found no mention of it in any press accounts. Indeed, the only references to it I’ve been able to find are a few web sites that quote mention of it in the favorable response of the Berkeley College Republicans to the governor’s veto.

In addition to wondering why the mainstream (indeed, virtually the entire) press so conspicuously failed to cover such sensational findings on such an important issue, two other questions come to mind. First, are the Republicans really as dumb or cowardly (or both) as they appear for their continued refusal to jump on such a popular bandwagon? Why is it so hard for them to make an issue of support for the core American principle — a principle this poll reveals is still widely revered even in the Bay Area of California — that people should be treated without regard to race, creed, color, or national origin?

Second, when, if ever, will the Democrats notice the wide and widening gulf between their voters and their elected officials over racial preferences? This past week in Wisconsin, for example, as I discussed in some detail here, Rep. Peggy Krusick, a Democratic state legislator from Milwaukee, introduced legislation that would bar state officials from taking race or ethnicity into account in awarding educational grants, a proposal that produced an apoplectic eruption of fury from her Democratic colleagues and even proposals to expel her from the Democratic caucus. According to a Fox News report from Madison, a few days ago “[o]ver 25 activists … confronted the state lawmaker considered public enemy number one within the Democratic party.”

Republican politicians all too often lack the courage of a conviction they claim to have — a belief in the “without regard” principle of colorblind equality. Democratic politicians lack that conviction itself. All politicians, of both parties, as well as any college and university officials who care what the public thinks about their policies should take a careful look at the findings of that Sept. 26 Survey USA poll. It would be interesting to hear how those politicians and educrats would justify their behavior to that poll’s respondents.

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John S. Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

John S. Rosenberg

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

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