JOHN HOOD COLUMN: Voters would end racial preferences

Published 8:53 am Wednesday, August 18, 2021

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RALEIGH — The University of North Carolina systemically discriminates by race and ethnicity in student admissions and faculty hiring. Arguably such behavior is already forbidden by federal and state law. Now a group of state lawmakers has proposed an amendment to the state constitution that would eliminate all doubt on the matter.

John Hood

Senate Bill 729 is admirably brief. Here’s the pivotal paragraph: “The State and its political subdivisions, including the free public schools and public institutions of higher education, 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 education, or public contracting.”

This is the proper policy for a free and just society. It is also broadly supported by the general public. That’s why defenders of racial preferences will fight tooth and nail to keep the issue away from voters. That’s why they call it a “ban on affirmative action,” which it most assuredly is not.

I guess I should explain that the anti-discrimination amendment in question was proposed by a Republican, Senate leader Phil Berger, and has attracted only Republican sponsors to date. They believe, correctly, that no agency of state government should take race or other extraneous factors into account when hiring public employees or determining access to public services.

After generations of discrimination against African-Americans and other minority groups, Congress banned the practice more than half a century ago. In doing so, Congress explicitly did not authorize public (or private) institutions to remedy past discrimination by engaging in ongoing discrimination against whites or, more recently, against “privileged” minorities such as Americans of Chinese, Japanese, or Indian descent.

Yes, some courts have reinterpreted civil-rights laws to allow for just such discriminatory acts, while often stipulating that such an extreme remedy should remain rare and disappear quickly. It did neither. That’s why the residents of places such as California and Michigan stepped in years ago to ban racial preferences by state law or constitutional amendment. That’s why North Carolinians should be given the opportunity to do the same today.

To ban the use of race, ethnicity, sex, or national origin in university admissions or hiring is not to ban affirmative action in the form of vigorous outreach efforts to ensure that pools of applicants are as diverse as possible. It is a ban on making the final decisions based on such characteristics.

In other words, affirmative action does not equal racial preferences. When supposedly neutral news media described Sen. Berger’s proposal as a “ban on affirmative action,” they were either exhibiting their ignorance or willfully misleading their audiences.

Fortunately, their audiences are not so gullible. Polling confirms that the vast majority of people understand this distinction. In surveys by the Pew Research Center, for example, most Americans say they’re worried about race relations and continue to support the concept of “affirmative action.” But only 26 percent of respondents said race should be a factor in university admissions. Most African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and Asian-Americans said it shouldn’t be a factor.

Similarly, a 2019 Pew survey found that most Americans think it’s good to promote diversity in the workplace. But here’s another question from the same poll: “When it comes to decisions about hiring and promotions, do you think companies and organizations should take a person’s race and ethnicity into account, in addition to their qualifications, in order to increase diversity in the workplace (or) should only take a person’s qualifications into account, even if it results in less diversity in the workplace.” Just 24 percent favored the first option, to take race and ethnicity in account in hiring, with 74 percent saying employers should take only the applicants’ qualifications into account.

Polls by Gallup and other organizations generally produce the same results. If Senate Bill 729 passes the legislature, North Carolina voters will approve it. That’s why its comparatively few — but powerful — foes are so desperate to keep it off the ballot.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member and author.