When Will Progressives Realize That Americans Really Hate Racial Preferences?

By Charlotte Allen
Charlotte Allen
Charlotte Allen
Charlotte Allen is the executive editor of Catholic Arts Today and a frequent contributor to Quillette. She has a doctorate in medieval studies from the Catholic University of America.
July 19, 2023Updated: July 19, 2023


The Supreme Court’s decision striking down racial preferences in student admissions at Harvard and the University of North Carolina is proving to be highly popular with American voters.

The most recent poll, released on July 17, reveals that 65 percent—nearly two-thirds—of likely voters approve of the court’s 6–3 ruling, including 49 percent—nearly half—who strongly approve. Only 28 percent disapproved. The polling firm was Rasmussen, which generally skews conservative, but its results are in line with earlier polls conducted shortly before and after the justices’ June 29 decision.

For example, in a YouGov survey (pdf) taken for CBS between June 15 and June 17, a full 70 percent of respondents said that colleges shouldn’t be allowed to consider an applicant’s race as part of their admissions policies. That included 55 percent of Democrats and 50 percent of people who had voted for President Joe Biden in 2020. Among blacks and Hispanics, who are typically the explicit beneficiaries of colleges’ racial preferences, support for getting rid of them was 50 percent and 68 percent, respectively.

During the days immediately following the release of the decision Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, progressive advocates and the progressive media tried to stir up panic and outrage about a supposed return of overt racism on college campuses and elsewhere. A June 29 story on the CNN website is typical. The headline: “The gutting of affirmative action is a ‘clear and present danger’ to equal education, critics say.” The story quoted an NAACP official: “Affirmative action … stood as a powerful force against the insidious poison of racism and sexism, aiming to level the playing field and provide a fair shot at a high-quality education for all.” Another activist said the decision means that only people with “privilege” will be admitted to academically selective colleges.

The statistics that the polls reveal say otherwise, of course, especially regarding the surprisingly high support levels for jettisoning racial preferences among actual blacks and Hispanics. But then again, “surprisingly” may be the wrong word. Americans have, in fact, looked with suspicion on racial preferences for decades, especially when it comes to higher education. A voter-approved ballot measure amended the state constitution to ban consideration of race in admissions and employment at California’s public universities and other public entities in 1996. Back then, more than half of California’s population was non-Hispanic white. Now only about 35 percent of the state’s population is non-Hispanic white, and 39 percent are Latino, making that ethnic group California’s largest. Still, when a ballot measure emerged in 2020 that would have repealed the 1996 amendment, it failed by an overwhelming 57 percent.

That shouldn’t have come as a shock—although it did for many progressives. When Americans are asked if they believe “affirmative action” targeted at bringing more racial minorities into, say, higher education or the job market is a good thing, they typically say yes—about half of Republicans and 84 percent of Democrats, according to a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center (pdf). But according to a 2016 Gallup poll, this strong general support melts when the question is re-framed. Some 70 percent of respondents told Gallup that college admissions should be decided on merit alone, and that racial and ethnic identification should play no part in the admissions process, even if it means that fewer minority applicants get accepted. The 70 percent figure exactly matches the 70 percent of respondents to the YouGov/CBS survey in June, which similarly said that admissions officers shouldn’t consider race in their decisions.

What this shows is that the meaning of “affirmative action” is ambiguous. On the one hand, it means something that most Americans can agree with: outreach and recruitment efforts. That seemed to be affirmative action’s original meaning when it first surfaced in a 1961 executive order signed by John F. Kennedy requiring government contractors to take steps to hire and promote employees without regard to their race. That’s something that almost everyone can agree with, because its underlying principle is fairness. But when “affirmative action” comes to mean preferring one race over another, as it does in many progressive circles, most Americans recoil—because it violates that very principle of racial fairness. No one should be the slightest bit surprised that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Students for Fair Admissions may prove to be the most popular of this term.

When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in its June 2022 ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, political progressives launched plans to use that unpopular decision to undermine the legitimacy of the Supreme Court itself. Most Americans have complex, even negative feelings about abortion, but they had adjusted to living with Roe. Progressives seemed to hope that the court’s decision in Students for Fair Admissions would be similarly rebarbative, especially among blacks and Hispanics, whom the Democratic Party takes for granted as a major part of its base. This hasn’t happened despite progressives’ best efforts to stir up general hysteria. Perhaps it’s time for them to realize that racial preferences are something that few people outside of elite circles like.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.