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Arizona’s Affirmative Action Ban

Yesterday, voters in Arizona approved Proposition 107, which bans the use of preferences based on race, ethnicity, and gender at public colleges and universities, among other institutions. Voters supported the referendum by an overwhelming margin (60 percent-40 percent).

Some might dismiss the significance of the vote, considering Arizona’s anti-immigrant reputation. But it is important to remember that the Arizona vote follows the passage of similar initiatives in both blue and red states, including California (1996), Washington (1998), Michigan (2006), and Nebraska (2008). The Arizona vote gives California businessman Ward Connerly’s American Civil Rights Institute a 5-1 record on anti-affirmative action referenda. (A 2008 initiative in Colorado narrowly lost).

In addition, Connerly’s threat of an anti-affirmative-action initiative in Florida in 1999 prompted then-Governor Jeb Bush to ban racial preferences at public colleges and universities as a preemptive measure. (Racial affirmative action has also been discontinued at individual institutions, such as the University of Georgia and Texas A&M.)

In all, six states, with 80 million residents, more than one quarter of the American population, have now barred affirmative action at public colleges and universities.

If polling finds that preferences based on race are unpopular, however, public opinion research has long found that American support preferences for low-income and economically disadvantaged students of all races. In 2003, for example, a Los Angeles Times survey found that by 56-26 percent, American opposed the University of Michigan’s racial preference policy but those same Americans supported preferences for low-income students by 59-31 percent. A Newsweek poll around that same time likewise found that Americans opposed preferences for blacks in university admissions by 68-26 percent, but supported preferences for economically disadvantaged students by 65-28 percent.

The polling would seem to suggest that Americans want to provide a leg up to students who have overcome obstacles but see those obstacles today as being primarily socioeconomic rather than racial in nature. Recent Century Foundation research backs up that belief, finding that the most socioeconomically disadvantaged student is predicted to score 399 SAT points lower than for the most socioeconomically advantaged student. By contrast, the average black student is predicted to score 56 points lower than the average white student (controlling for socioeconomic status). The fact that socioeconomic obstacles are seven times as great as racial obstacles may suggest to voters that class should be the most salient disadvantage considered in university admissions.

Sophisticated admissions officers might dismiss such thinking as naive, since admissions is not about “fairness” but rather about creating campuses that have a vibrant diversity that will enhance learning. Whatever the merits of that line of thinking, it doesn’t appear to resonate with voters, as the latest returns from Arizona confirm.

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