The state of Washington has it. California has it. Michigan has it. Oklahoma has it. Nebraska has it. Arizona has it. Florida, New Hampshire, and Idaho have a version of it.
Within the next few years, North Carolina will have it, too: a legal prohibition against the use of race or sex as a factor in hiring public employees, awarding government contracts, or admitting students to universities. This will happen either through a U.S. Supreme Court decision, a law passed by the General Assembly, or a constitutional amendment approved by North Carolina voters.
It’s important for those in positions of power across our state to understand and accept this inevitability. I fear that they do not, that they are in for a rude awakening when their power to make decisions based on race or other extraneous characteristics will be irrevocably taken from them.
They interpret “affirmative action” to mean, for example, admitting black students with lower grades and test scores into the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill instead of Asian students with higher grades and test scores. They interpret it to mean they can announce a racial, ethnic, or gender target when hiring employees or awarding contracts and then preferring some applicants over others in an attempt to meet that goal.
By their definition, however, affirmative action is unjust and unpopular. Very few people believe government should either discriminate or grant preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex, color, or national identity.
According to the latest Civitas Poll for the John Locke Foundation, two-thirds of North Carolinians support a proposed constitutional amendment to clarify that such conduct is illegal. Only 15% oppose it. There were no significant differences of opinion on this question among racial and ethnic groups in our state. If such an amendment is placed on the North Carolina ballot, it will pass easily.
That doesn’t mean North Carolinians believe equality has been fully achieved. It doesn’t mean they oppose all remedies for inequality. Indeed, most North Carolinians continue to support affirmative action when it is precisely and corrected defined as expanding access to the applicant pool for jobs, contracts, and university admissions.
For instance, most North Carolinians want public agencies to take affirmative action to ensure that all potentially interested parties know about any scholarships, programs, and job openings that may be available. Most want public agencies to produce applications, forms, and marketing materials in multiple languages and distribute them widely.
Most would also likely support race-neutral means of pursuing diversity at exclusive universities by, for example, admitting a set percentage of top performers from all high schools across the state. I’m not a fan of this policy myself, but it does have the virtue of avoiding the pernicious practice of sorting young people by crude racial categories and then mixing and matching them like pieces on a gameboard.
Defenders of preferences have always defamed their adversaries as bigots. They will continue to do so, though the defamation obviously changes no minds and solves no problems.
It is true that our society has yet to achieve full equality of opportunity. While some statistical differences in incomes, wealth, and living standards reflect differences in individual preferences or cultural norms, others persist because too many of our young people lack stable families, effective schools, and affordable housing in safe neighborhoods. Bad public policies are partly to blame, which means good public policies can, indeed, promote equal opportunity.
Of course, we don’t all define those “bad” and “good” public policies the same way. Left, Right, and Center will continue to disagree about how to expand access to the American Dream. When it comes to using race or sex preferences in hiring, contracting, and admissions, however, the vast majority of us already decided the practice is unfair and counterproductive.
Two of the three most-populous states in our country have already ended such preferences. North Carolina will soon join them. Time to accept reality and move on.
John Hood is a Carolina Journal columnist and author of the new novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.