Source: Wenyuan Wu

On March 9, 2020, the Idaho Senate State Affairs Committee approved House Bill H440,  a measure outlawing race-based affirmative action in state agencies, state contracting, and public education. The bill is currently on Idaho’s full senate floor for amendments. Once amended and signed by Governor Brad Little into law, H440 will make the Gem State the ninth to adopt a statewide ban on affirmative action.

The other eight states are: California, Washington, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona, New Hampshire, and Oklahoma. In most cases, measures to ban racial discrimination and preferential treatment were passed by popular votes on the ballot.

At the national level, we are also witnessing a descending trend regarding the legal parameters and public attitudes supporting race-conscious admissions. Recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings in 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger and 2006 Fisher II have narrowly tailored race considerations in admissions to suffice compelling government interests and strict scrutiny. On June 29, 2018, the Education Department Office for Civil Rights (OCR) restored a policy notice dating back to the Bush era which instructs all schools receiving federal financial assistance to strictly observe relevant U.S. Supreme Court rulings on the use of race in college admissions. On July 3, 2018, the Justice Department rescinded seven policy documents that promoted racial balancing in postsecondary education.

Legal and administrative restrictions around race-based affirmative action neatly respond to changing public perceptions surveyed in rigorous national polls. A March 2019 Pew study finds that the majority of Americans (73%) say colleges and universities should not consider race or ethnicity in their student admissions. A 2016 Gallup poll concludes that 63% of Americans oppose race-based affirmative action and 70% support strictly merit-based college admissions.

Disapproving public attitudes toward racial preferences also align with functionalist reasoning based on counterfactual evidence. Dr. Richard D. Kahlenberg’s 2014 critique contends that the academic achievement gap by income is twice that by race. An August 2017 New York Times piece shows that blacks and Hispanics are more underrepresented at selective colleges than 35 years ago.

Slowly but steadily, affirmative action programs centered on rigid racial lines are losing their appeal in the American public. Their fateful decline, however, is often attributed to “retrogressive” motives and actions of white conservatives. A 2019 Brookings study cites statistical evidence correlating affirmative action bans with percentage changes in white students attending state flagship universities. At a recent Inside Higher Ed. conference on college admissions, I was challenged to answer to my “perceived” role in aiding and abetting a white supremacist agenda against race-conscious measures.

These arguments, however eloquent, overlook the causal weakness of quantitative modeling and oversimplify the complex history of citizen-led initiatives against race-based affirmative action.

A closer look at the civil rights campaigns banning racialized affirmative action reveals an untold story. Americans of African and Asian descent, rather than white supremacists presented by the media and academia, are increasingly spearheading recent movements for fairness and equality.

Since the mid-1990s, black civil rights activists and organizations, represented by Ward Connerly and the American Civil Rights Institute (ACRI), have been an integral part of various coalitions to defeat racial preferences. They campaigned tirelessly through public advocacy and legislature lobbying in California, Washington, Michigan, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Arizona, and Colorado. Most recently, Connerly and the ACRI have been instrumental in advancing Idaho’s legislative ban on affirmative action. And he is not alone. Connerly’s rhetoric against shallow equity and fights for constitutionally mandated equality are shared by prominent black intellectuals such as Thomas SowellJohn McWhorter, and Shelby Steele. The ACRI’s mission to protect equal rights for all Americans is echoed by black civil rights groups including the Woodson CenterProject 21 and 1776 Unites. Such high profiles are grounded in public opinions: according to the 2019 Pew survey, 62% of black respondents argue that race or ethnicity should not be a factor in college admissions.

Asian-Americans started to mobilize against anti-Asian discrimination in college admissions in the late 1980s. Between 1988 and 1990,  the OCR launched investigations into Harvard and UCLA for their alleged discrimination in admissions in response to complaints filed by Asian-Americans. In 1994, Chinese-American lawyer and civil rights activist Lee Cheng brought a lawsuit against the San Francisco Unified School District to end its cap on Chinese students at Lowell High School. In 2014, Asian-American grassroot organizations collaborated with national nonprofits such as the 80-20 National Asian American PAC and my organization to push back SCA5, a California constitutional amendment to challenge Proposition 209, the state’s affirmative action ban. Beginning in 2015, my organization, the Asian American Coalition for Education, has filed civil rights complaints to pursue elite colleges such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton for their anti-Asian biases. We supported and coordinated various local efforts against racial balancing in K-12 education in New York CityMarylandWashington State and Connecticut as well. These individual momentums, propelled by grassroot organizing and innovative digital outreach, have collectively signified a nationwide unification of countless Asian-Americans for equal education rights.

Notably, black and Asian civil rights movements have found important points of convergence. As early as 1996, a small group of Asian-American organizations in California worked in parallel with Connerly’s California Civil Right Initiative to pass Prop. 209. The nascent alignment has turned into alliances in recent years. Last year, the ACRI cooperated with the American Coalition for Equality, LPV, and the Asian American Rights Association to reject legislative attempts (I-1000, R-88) which would have brought back race-based affirmative action to Washington state. In this February, the ACRI also joined my organization, along with another 289 groups, in a joint Amicus Brief protesting Harvard’s uses of racial quotas, racial stereotypes, and higher standards against Asian-American applicants.

Moving forward, many institutional hurdles mounted by established interests and the equity/justice mob still stand strong to blunt the counter-hegemonic efforts to abolish race-based affirmative action. The powerful defense of an ineffective and disastrous social policy accentuates the need for a cross-racial alliance united by a shared vision to uphold America’s founding principles of equality and individual liberty. Such a new consensual space will also encourage productive exchanges of intellectual ideas and civil capacity building to thwart the social monopolization and appropriation of minority thoughts and actions by radical politics.