America and the Affirmative Action Debate

Last month, the Supreme Court decided Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, holding that race-based affirmative action programs in college admissions violate both Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The decision, which also covered Harvard’s companion case Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. University of North Carolina, essentially overruled Grutter v. Bollinger and Regents of the University of California v. Bakke – both of which had allowed for the limited consideration of race, among other factors, in the college admissions process.

The Harvard decision has predictably been criticized by many of the nation’s universities, but it hasn’t drawn the ire of ordinary Americans or reduced the public perception of the Court like the Dobbs decision did last summer. We don’t expect it to either.

When Dobbs was decided, the vast majority of Americans supported abortion rights. In fact, our own research found that abortion rights polled positively in every swing state from 2020. Since Dobbs returned the abortion issue to the states last year, most red states have significantly restricted abortion access or banned it altogether

The new restrictions energized Democrats nationwide, even in states where abortion was constitutionally protected at the state level. More consequentially, the GOP’s wholehearted endorsement of the Dobbs decision convinced many persuadable independents and soft Republicans, especially those in well-educated suburban swing districts, to support Democratic candidates. This contributed to an underwhelming midterm performance for the GOP despite Joe Biden’s unpopularity and an uncertain economic outlook.

There is no evidence that the Court’s decision in Harvard will have a remotely similar effect. Race-based admissions policies have never been particularly popular with the electorate. In fact, nine states had already banned the consideration of race in college admissions by the time the Court reached its decision.

It all started in California, where Bakke originated. In 1996, the state’s GOP spearheaded the successful campaign behind Proposition 209. That initiative ultimately passed 55–45, making California the first state in the country to outlaw consideration of race in decisions involving public employment, contracting, and education. In 2020, an attempt by the Democratic legislative supermajority to relegalize affirmative action failed 57–43 — a clear sign of bipartisan opposition.

While affirmative action is not particularly popular with any demographic group, opposition from nonwhite Democrats played an important role in the outcomes of both initiatives. Only the bluest areas of the state (namely the Bay Area and Los Angeles County), voted in favor of affirmative action either time. 

Ten years after California’s Proposition 209, voters in Michigan comfortably passed a similar referendum that outlawed affirmative action in the state. Support for the referendum broke down in large part on racial lines, but it was particularly pronounced in Michigan’s suburban and exurban counties. 

If those referenda aren’t enough to prove that affirmative action policies have long been unpopular with ordinary Americans, survey results clear up any remaining doubt. Shortly before the Court’s decision in Harvard, Pew Research polled Americans about the use of race in decisions related to college admissions and hiring. 

Their core finding was quite insightful: half of Americans directly opposed affirmative action. Only a third of respondents supported race-based programs. Majorities of whites and Asians (the groups considered to not benefit from affirmative action) were predictably opposed, and approval was lukewarm at best among Hispanics and Black Americans regarding the consideration of race in admissions and hiring decisions. 

Pew Research wasn’t an outlier by any means, with similar pre-decision surveys from the Washington Post and CBS News likewise showing that most Americans disapproved of affirmative action and supported banning associated race-based programs. The public’s stance held up after the Court’s decision in Harvard, which respondents approved of by a 2-1 margin according to an Economist/YouGov poll.

Importantly, that post-decision survey found that more Black Americans actually approved of the decision than did not. That seemed to align with the Washington Post’s finding that 47% of Black respondents supported banning affirmative action altogether. The remaining Pew Research results suggest that African Americans may feel ambivalent towards affirmative action because they have not personally benefitted from race-based programs. Others oppose because of the stigma that any success they might achieve is entirely the result of their racial identity rather than merit.

Ultimately, looking at the results of Pew’s affirmative action survey by political party explains why the Harvard decision won’t mean much from an electoral standpoint. Although many more Republicans opposed affirmative action than Democrats did, a full third of Democratic respondents also supported outlawing race-based programs. Contrary to the White House’s official stance on the ruling, all available evidence confirms the obvious: that most Americans do not support consideration of race in admissions and approve of the Court’s decision.

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