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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How Should Democrats Navigate Debates About Affirmative Action?

In his latest opinion essay, New York Times columnist Thomas B. Edsall chews on a couple of issues and frames his probe like this: “What do the strikingly different public responses to two recent Supreme Court rulings — one on abortion, the other on affirmative action — suggest about the prospects for the liberal agenda?”

You have no doubt read a lot about the political power of abortion rights this year, and it will most certainly be a front and center issue in next year’s elections. Republicans would like affirmative action to crowd out the abortion debate in the months ahead. But I doubt there is enough of a news hook to make that happen on a scale that will have a significant political impact on the presidential contest.

However, it may be more of a factor in a few, though not many, state and local elections, particularly with respect to admission to public colleges and universities. How should Democrats navigate this difficult issue ? Edsall shares some observations about concerns revealed in referenda:

There have been no referendums on affirmative action since the June decision, Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College. Six states held referendums on affirmative action before that ruling was issued, and five voted to prohibit it, including Michigan, Washington and California (twice). Colorado, the lone exception, voted in favor of affirmative action in 2008.

Do the dissimilar responses to the court decisions ending two key components of the liberal agenda, as it was conceived in the 1960s and 1970s, suggest that one of them — the granting of preferences to minorities in order to level differences in admissions outcomes — has run its course?

On the surface, the answer to that question is straightforward: A majority of American voters support racial equality as a goal, but they oppose targets or quotas that grant preferential treatment to any specific group.

Pretty hard and fast, that call. Of course referenda questions, which are focused on up or down votes, are never framed in a way that reflect overall context. “Should race-based affirmative action be eliminated from college admission policies, even if it means that nearly all enrolled students will come from upper income families?” Such a frame would be rare, even in opinion polls. But it does reflect the reality at many higher educational institutions before affirmative action became a widespread remedy.

Today more students from racial minorities can qualify for admission to elite colleges and universities on the merits of their grades and achievements than was the case 40 or 50 years ago. But that doesn’t mean that genuine economic opportunity has been achieved nationwide. Ditto for educational opportunity. For example, only 6.6 percent of students enrolled in the University of Georgia (Athens flagship) are black, according to the UGA factbook, even though African Americans are about one-third of the state population.  And the trend for Black enrollment at the institution is down over the last five years. Which Democratic politicians want to argue that is fair?

Conservatives would argue that the problem here is the low quality of public schools that feed the state university, and that’s a county/city problem. But they don’t want to invest in local education either and often flee to the ‘burbs when taxes are raised for education.

Opponents of affirmative action routinely trot out the MLK quote about ‘content of their character’ being more important than ‘the color of their skin” and twist it into an argument against preferences to help those who have experienced racial discrimination. But, in his book, “Why We Can’t Wait,” King supported the concept of preferential treatment as a remedy for discrimination, and expressed admiration for India’s special programs to help “untouchables.”

Edsall is surely right that the central issue underlying all questions of preferential treatment is fairness. And it is no easy task for a political candidate to appear fair to all of her/his prospective constituents. Edsall adds further:

In an email, Neil Malhotra, a political economist at Stanford — one of the scholars who, on an ongoing basis, oversees polling on Supreme Court decisions for The New York Times — pointed out that “race-based affirmative action is extremely unpopular. Sixty-nine percent of the public agreed with the court’s decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, including 58 percent of Democrats.”….An Economist/YouGov poll conducted in early July posed questions that go directly to the question of affirmative action in higher education.

“Do you think colleges should or should not be allowed to consider an applicant’s race, among other factors, when making decisions on admissions?”

The answer: 25 percent said they should allow racial preferences; 64 percent said they should not.

“Do you approve or disapprove of the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action, which ruled that colleges are not allowed to consider an applicant’s race when making decisions on admissions?”

Fifty-nine percent approved of the decision, including 46 percent who strongly approved. Twenty-seven percent disapproved, including 18 percent who strongly disapproved.

I asked William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, about the significance of the differing reactions to the abortion and affirmative action decisions, and he referred me to his July 2023 essay, “A Surprisingly Muted Reaction to the Supreme Court’s Decision on Affirmative Action”….“To the surprise of many observers,” Galston wrote, citing poll data, Black Americans “supported the court by 44 percent to 36 percent.”

Key groups of swing voters also backed the court’s decision by wide margins, Galston went on to say: “Moderates by 56 percent to 23 percent, independents by 57 percent to 24 percent and suburban voters, a key battleground in contemporary elections, by 59 percent to 30 percent.”

Edsall quotes a number of people who are involved in the debate over the merits of affirmative action, who say that it is not going to be an issue that Democrats will focus on in the year ahead. But that doesn’t mean that political candidates who loudly oppose it won’t pay a price in lost votes.

In his conclusion, Edsall writes, “Where does that leave the nation? Galston, in his Brookings essay, provided an answer:”

In sum, the country’s half-century experiment with affirmative action failed to persuade a majority of Americans — or even a majority of those whom the policy was intended to benefit — that it was effective and appropriate. University employers — indeed, the entire country — must now decide what to do next to advance the cause of equal opportunity for all, one of the nation’s most honored but never achieved principles.

America has a long, often brutal history of preferential treatment for white people, which is too often answered  with variations of the “that was then, this is now” response, and somehow we can’t afford a relatively small investment to help reduce inequality. But fairness and equal opportunity need not be oppositional values in a democratic society – if policy-makers steer a wiser middle course that rejects throwing anyone under the bus.

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