I Support Affirmative Action. Do You?

The North Carolina General Assembly is considering a new bill (Senate Bill 729) which seeks to outlaw racial discrimination and racial preferences in public affairs. The bill’s language is identical to similar proposals in California, Washington, Michigan, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Arizona, Colorado, and Idaho, which states:

The State shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public contracting, and public education.

More broadly speaking, this emphasis on non-discrimination and non-preferences reflects the letter and spirit of both the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. In a historical context, the bill and its sister legislation in other states also echo the original intent of “Affirmative Action” as a federal policy instituted by President John F. Kennedy in his Executive Order 10925. The order mandated federal contractors “to take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.”

However, shortly after SB-729 was drafted for the North Carolina Senate in mid-July, regional news channels began to brand the measure as an affirmative action ban. This linguistic obfuscation that crudely equates racial spoils with affirmative action is reminiscent of the predominant popular narratives surrounding successful legislative proposals in nine states that currently ban racial preferences. In Washington state, for instance, a referendum was introduced (and voted down) in 2019 to roll back the state’s prohibition on racial preferences. In a desperate attempt to skew public support for the repeal, the Washington secretary of state crafted the ballot title so misleadingly that Washington voters thought they were voting on an affirmative action measure.

Affirmative action has never been absent or categorically outlawed in any of the nine states. Race-neutral, need-based affirmative action measures are perfectly legal and have been employed systematically to level the playing field in many areas, so as to offer reasonable assistance to socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals, regardless of race. At the same time, outreach efforts that target women and minorities are allowed, as long as they are conducted in an inclusive and non-discriminatory manner.

Take a look at California, the state that pioneered this legislative movement in 1996 with the passage of Proposition 209. The largest state public university system, the University of California (UC), adopted an affirmative action employment policy in 2012, demanding each campus establish “written affirmative action plans” to “apply every good faith effort to achieve prompt and full utilization of minorities and women in all segments of its workforce where deficiencies exist.” In 2016, the city of Los Angeles passed an affirmative action policy for city contractors to enhance “minority, women and all other staffing utilization.”

Under Proposition 209, six UC campuses have been certified as Hispanic Serving Institutions. In 2012, UC created the UC-HBCU Initiative to partner with historically black colleges and universities. The system also touts its Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) program to help disadvantaged students develop STEM skills and the Puente Project to improve college-preparatory English skills for Latino students. 4-year graduation rates of underrepresented racial minorities (URMs) at UC rose from 31.3% from 1995-97 to 36.6% from 1998-2000, and then to 43.3% from 2001-03. In 2014, URMs’ 4-year graduation rate climbed to a record high of 55.1%.

With the guarantee of equality before the law, workforce diversity for people of color in California’s public employment has increased significantly and has reflected changes in the working age population: the percentage of minority civil servants rose from 38% (70,000) in 1990 to over 58% (132,413) in 2020. Women make up about 46.5% of the civil workforce. In addition, the upward trend is not skewed by the unverified allegation of minorities’ occupying low-paying positions. In the state Department of Motor Vehicles, for instance, managerial positions are 29.4% black, 27.5% Latino, 2% Asian, and 33.3% white.

In short, affirmative action without racial spoils has worked!

Circling back to North Carolina, each of the state’s two legislative chambers need to muster a three-fifths supermajority vote in favor of the proposal in order for it to get on the 2022 state ballot as a constitutional amendment measure. Assuming all Republican legislators approve the bill, it would also need support from at least seven Democrats in the House and two Democrats in the senate. This is doable, considering a stable, bi-partisan, and growing national consensus against race consciousness or racial preferences, evidenced by electoral results and opinion polls.

For example, a 2016 Gallup poll found that 63% of Americans opposed race-based affirmative action. According to a March 2019 Pew study, 73% of Americans say colleges and universities should not consider race or ethnicity in admissions. In both Washington and California, two states that have become more politically progressive following their respective bans on racial preferences, voters rejected elitist proposals to roll back those bans. In the case of California in 2019 (where 64% of votes went for Biden in 2020), 57.2% of the electorate, or over 9.65 million in absolute numbers, resoundingly defended Proposition 209. In other words, 35% of Biden voters voted “No” on the repeal.

That’s right. Democrats, too, can support true affirmative action without racial considerations. The key is to reach across the aisle with empirical data, sound reasoning, and strategic messaging for a broad-based consensus. Best of luck to North Carolina!


Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Wenyuan Wu

Wenyuan Wu is Executive Director of the Californians for Equal Rights Foundation. Twitter: @wu_wenyuan

2 thoughts on “I Support Affirmative Action. Do You?

  1. The population of California is 57% white, 37% Hispanic, 13% Asian, 6% African American. In this article, the author reports that “In the state Department of Motor Vehicles, for instance, managerial positions are 29.4% black, 27.5% Latino, 2% Asian, and 33.3% white.” On this basis the author concludes, “affirmative action without racial spoils has worked!” Yet blacks are overrepresented by over 400%, Hispanics and whites substantially underrepresented, and Asians highly underrepresented. These figures certainly raise the suspicion of racial spoils. And if you argue that over- or under-representation should not be used as criteria here, then they should not be used when different categories could be construed as over- or under-represented.

  2. Great piece Dr. Wu! Thank you for everything you do to in this space. Your work is greatly appreciated here in CA and throughout the country.

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