This week, Harvard University went to trial over the claim it discriminates against Asian-American applicants. Affirmative action moved back onto the main stage of American politics, particularly as this is an issue where replacing Justice Anthony Kennedy with Justice Brett Kavanaugh could make a difference at the Supreme Court. Yet the political discussion of this hot-button issue again proceeds with little recognition of a basic fact: racial preferences in college admissions are wildly unpopular.
Eighty-five percent of Americans oppose considering race in the college admissions process, according to “Hidden Tribes,” a recent report from the left-of-center group More in Common. Of the seven “tribes” identified in the report, racial preferences were supported only by progressive activists, the furthest-left 8 percent of Americans. Ironically, progressive activists are almost the least diverse of the tribes, except the furthest-right 6 percent.
Only 40 percent of progressive activists oppose racial preferences in college admissions. But among traditional liberals (a group comprising 11 percent of Americans), 72 percent oppose racial preferences. Passive liberals (15 percent), who have more African-Americans, women, and younger people than average, are several points even less supportive.
Nor is the “Hidden Tribes” polling an outlier. In September, public television’s WGBH published a poll finding 72 percent of adults disagreed with prior Supreme Court rulings allowing colleges to consider race in making admissions decisions. Indeed, racial preferences were disapproved by majorities of black, Hispanic, and Asian respondents in the survey.
As the disapproval from minority groups suggests, the rejection of the policy does not appear to be solely the product of prejudice. In the WGBH poll, 86 percent of respondents opined that campus diversity is at least a somewhat important goal. Similarly, in the “Hidden Tribes” polling, 81 percent of Americans believe there are serious problems of racism in the country, with 75 percent agreeing that acts of racism are at least somewhat common.
In short, there is a broad consensus among Americans that racism remains a problem and that campus diversity is important. Yet there is an even broader consensus that racial preferences in college admissions should not be the solution to that problem.
Of course, the fact that only 15 percent of Americans support affirmative action policies at institutions like Harvard does not necessarily make these schools wrong. What is popular is not always right, and vice versa.
However, it is fair to say that a position as unpopular as using racial preferences in college admissions should be considered a controversial, non-mainstream position. Instead, however, the public discussion of affirmative action, particularly in the media, tends to follow the tired convention that a “controversial” position is one held by conservatives, not by establishment journalism.
The New York Times, for example, will describe affirmative action in college admissions as “a major – and highly contentious – legacy of the civil rights era, and one that white conservatives have opposed for decades.” The broad and increasing unpopularity of the policy is rarely, if ever, news that’s fit to print. The Washington Post’s supposedly “straight” news coverage similarly insinuates that opposition to racial preferences is largely an exercise in white identity politics.
When The Washington Post, NPR, or CNN publish features purporting to tell their readers what they need to know about racial preferences in education, somehow they never get around to mentioning that the vast majority of Americans now oppose them. Accounts of the dueling rallies ahead of the Harvard trial, from the Boston Globe to The Atlantic, similarly avoid this inconvenient truth. Instead, given the nature of the allegations against Harvard, it is common to find – from The New Yorker to Vox to Teen Vogue – articles by Asian-Americans defending racial preferences.
The effect of this extensive web of denial in American journalism is to completely invert the public discourse. The typical media consumer would tend to conclude racial preferences in education are not merely legal, but also broadly popular, opposed only by a narrow faction of closet Klansmen who run the Republican Party.
In reality, this distortion of public opinion empowers a small number of progressive activists, inside and outside the establishment media, in their attempt to short-circuit honest debate. If opponents of racial preferences can be dismissed with ad hominem attacks of racism or racial insensitivity, progressives are never required to answer the sorts of questions they otherwise would be required to face.
The initial question progressives get to avoid is why Americans now oppose racial preferences in education. Is it simply the moral sense that racial discrimination is wrong, even when the left might see it as benign? Is it the sense that such preferences often stigmatize their beneficiaries?
Progressives would also be forced to answer questions about the efficacy of racial preferences. Do racial preferences mismatch minority students and schools in ways that set up students to fail? Do they stoke the growing grievance culture on American campuses? If schools like Harvard are using race as “only one factor among many” in the admissions process, why do they simultaneously argue that removing this marginal factor would have apocalyptic effects on campus diversity?
In a more honest debate, we would hear more from critical legal theorists like Randall Kennedy, who is skeptical of the social science rationale for diversity on campus and wonders how it can be a “compelling state interest” for legal purposes only “so long as the demands and expectations imposed on it are not too onerous.” Kennedy argues for affirmative action as a form of reparations – a rationale long rejected by the Supreme Court, but one far more consistent with the policy as originally promoted by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
As Joy Pullmann recently wrote: “It says something about the left that they are not confident enough in their ideas to subject them to a free and open hearing aimed at honest persuasion, but instead seek to coerce people into compliance through political correctness and other social manipulations.”
Political correctness is the theory. The establishment’s warped discussion of racial preferences is the practice.