Affirmative Action? Negative.


Longxuan (Barry) Yao, Editor-in-Chief

It has been a year since the 2020 election ended with Joe Biden’s victory. Yet, as dramas unfolded in the election, one ballot measure proved to be the most noteworthy: California proposition 16 on Affirmative actions. Proposition 16 is one of the most substantial elements of the election neglected by mainstream media analysis.

As a measure, proposition 16 would have ended the 1990s era ban on the practice of “discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to persons on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin” in public university admissions. The proposal was soundly defeated by Californian voters in a fifteen-point landslide.

In fact, the only places with majority support for the proposal were Los Angeles and regions around San Francisco, with the rest of the Golden State refusing to support this constitutional amendment. For example, in Fresno, a working-class city that is roughly half white and half minority, the proposal was emphatically rejected by two to one.

We should keep in mind, too, that the Affirmative Action failure in California came as the backdrop of many other progressive priorities that found widespread support: From a 15-dollar minimum wage hike in Florida, tax-hike on the wealthy in Arizona, and rank-choice voting in Alaska, progressive initiatives overall had a good night.

Some activists have blamed the wording of some particular Affirmative Action ballot initiative, but in hindsight, Affirmative Actions have failed in every state where it has been tested at the ballot box for the past 30 years. So clearly, even for a state that votes for Democratic candidates routinely and overwhelmingly, a state that also went for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Primary, Affirmative Action proved to be too toxic to handle.

So what should we learn from this? We should start from an obvious point, but, unfortunately, often overlooked: a policy’s popularity and merit are two very distinct things; parties and politicians advocating for some unpopular measure is okay, but those who shift their view on subjects to accommodate poll numbers should be viewed with contempt. It is easy to think of morally righteous positions that were unpopular contemporarily but proven correct ultimately by history. Bernie Sanders, of course, was unpopular on many sides throughout his career: war, trade, gay rights, yet history proved his acumen to be acute.

However, although policy should certainly be judged on merit rather than popularity, there’s something very odd and white-savior patronizing about the fact that Affirmative Actions appear to be most popular among white liberals while being viewed with indifference and disdain among the very racial minority it purports to aid. The fourteen majority-Latino counties in California all rejected this Affirmative Action proposal.

If the people the policy is supposed to benefit fail to see them, what are we doing? In actuality, when examing Proposition 16 closely, one could immediately realize that the proposition was rather meant to make affluent white people feel good about themselves and about the elite institutions and environment they inhabit, than was it a project about “justice.”

Obviously, the most powerful programs of Affirmative Action are for the rich, whose parents can afford to donate in large amounts to top-level schools and benefit from a privileged legacy status, not to mention growing up with the abundant resources to get them into those schools to begin with.

But that elite experience will be so much less enjoyable if you were truly faced with how completely exclusive the elite training pipeline really is, and how much more it has to do with your parents’ bank account than it does with little Jonny’s “great promise.” So diversity has been sold to affluent whites not really as a project striving for justice, although the wording sounds nice and makes them feel good, it is ultimately a lifestyle brand.

Diversity has also been sold on a strictly transactional level as something actively beneficial to you and your kids. Such logic matters and could be substantiated by a study conducted by the podcast “Nice white parents,” which tracked a multi-decade history of one remarkable New York City public school. With white parents in the 60s, so for “diversity” as they are good for them and their kids, they lobbied aggressively for the local school board to locate this new public school in a zone right between the white neighborhood and black neighborhood so their kids may attend a diverse school. Once the school opened, however, none of the white families actually showed up; why? Because when they were faced with the reality that the black students had been suffering through sub-standard, underfunded schools and were thus behind the white kids; when they realized that “diversity” could impose some cost on their children, they were out.

Their relationship to “diversity” was utterly transactional, and the instant the white families felt they were not getting a “good deal,” they were gone. Affirmative Action is the type of program that poses little threat but benefits to affluent white liberals, it is the college admission equivalence of identity politics, more about getting brown faces in high places to make white people feel good than it is about actually addressing the very real problem that it seeks to ameliorate.


Protesters demanding the expansion of Affirmative Action.

It is almost axiomatic that any policies supported overwhelmingly by “brunch-liberals” are unlikely to forge any substantial structural change or justice. But we should not ignore the data: Affirmative Actions does, in fact, marginally improve Black and Latino admissions into elite universities. According to Matthew Yglesias, the author of “Minimum wage wins, affirmative action loses,” after Affirmative Actions was banned in California in the 1990s, the number of black students “at UC Berkeley fell from 6 to 7 percent to just 3 percent, while Latinos are only 15 percent of Berkeley’s freshman class despite being a majority of the state’s public high school graduates.”

So, by that metric, Affirmative Action is successful. But the goal is not supposed to be getting more minorities into high-level colleges; the goal was supposed to reduce the racial wealth-income gap, and on that metric, Affirmative Actions has proved to be a disastrous policy. In fact, after generations of racial preference in college admissions processes, the racial wealth gap is more prominent now than it was back in 1968.

So the policy is not particularly effective, it is politically toxic, and it has been rejected by voters everywhere and every time it has been tried. And it fuels racial resentment in the multi-racial voting class. But you should not just “throw up your hands” and declare these massive inequalities between races and classes have to stand. In fact, any universal programs that disproportionally affect the poor and the working class are racial-equity programs. As Yglesias points out, in Florida, where a 15 dollar minimum requirement has been passed, the majority of black and Latino Floridians will benefit as they currently earn less than that. He also points out that researchers say that 20% of the 1990’s decline in the black-white wage gap came from 1966 lifting the minimum wage.

Eliminating college debt would disproportionally benefit the minorities: black students are more likely to be burdened with college debt than their white counterparts. Of course, we can all imagine racially targeted policies that maybe unpopular but certainly deserves discussions and activisms and are worth dealing with the white racial resentment and backlash over. On the merits, however, Affirmative Action just does not raise my eyebrows.