Voting in Washington has begun on a ballot initiative to overturn that state’s ban on racial preferences in government. Voters outlawed racial preferences in 1998, as part of a mini-wave of eight such state initiatives, led by California anti-preference crusader Ward Connerly in the 1990s. The momentum behind that push for color-blindness in government has long since petered out, as identity politics became ascendant. The advocates of race-neutral government hiring, contracting, and college admissions are now on the defensive, fighting relentless efforts to undo their work.
In April 2019, the Washington state legislature hurriedly passed Initiative 1000 to bring preferences back into government policy. Now voters are facing a confusing choice. Though the referendum currently before them, Referendum 88, was instigated by racial-preference opponents, overwhelmingly Asian, to overturn Initiative 1000, a yes on the referendum would confirm passage of Initiative 1000 and reinstate preferences, and a no vote would preserve the pre-Initiative 1000 color-blind status quo.
Initiative 1000 has adopted the specious rhetoric of “holistic” college admissions, rhetoric that the Supreme Court, to its discredit as a supposedly rational jurisprudential body, has embraced. Race cannot be the “sole qualifying factor” in awarding or denying a public benefit, according to the initiative. This requirement allegedly prevents racial preferences from turning into quotas. These are the same claims made on behalf of “holistic admissions,” a supposedly real and definable practice that is meant to keep racial admissions preferences constitutional by avoiding a quota system. We are supposed to believe that admissions offices in a “holistic” regime make highly individualized decisions about applicants that award only the slightest “tip” to candidates on the basis of race. We are supposed to believe that the admissions office has NO idea what number of minorities it is shooting for, even though the racial percentages of any class remain stable from year to year, as was shown in the ongoing litigation over Harvard’s racial preferences.
These distinctions are utterly fictitious. Whenever one introduces an arbitrary category such as race into a selection system, with the goal of increasing underrepresented minorities, race will be THE defining feature of a huge number of applications, determining whether someone is admitted — or rejected to make way for an applicant in the preferred category. Any institution that employs “holistic admissions” is operating with de facto quotas; otherwise it would not need preferences in the first place. And contrary to the claims of Initiative 1000 proponents, introducing an irrelevant selection criterion — such as gender or race — into a screening system inevitably lowers the hiring, promotion, or admissions standards, especially when there are achievement gaps as huge as the ones separating blacks and Hispanics, on the one hand, and whites and Asians, on the other.
The president of the University of Washington, Ana Mari Cauce, backs Initiative 1000 and Referendum 88, of course. Her self-image as a progressive educator depends on her ability to look out over a sea of diverse faces and revel in her own noblesse oblige in presiding over an institution that fights back against red-state bigotry. The state’s ban on racial preferences sends the message that Washington “does not welcome or value diversity,” Cauce says. Actually, it sends the message that voters believe that all groups should be held to the same standards of achievement. Preference supporters send the message that they don’t believe that all groups can compete against one another without lowered standards for alleged victim groups.
The Seattle Chamber of Commerce and Big Tech companies such as Microsoft also support the repeal of the preferences ban. Companies want to be able to hire employees with an elite university diploma to make their personnel lists look impressive. Otherwise, if their only concern were achieving certain racial proportions in their work force, they could hire the requisite number of underrepresented minorities from those less elite state schools where minority students would enroll in the absence of racial preferences.
The important thing to understand about eliminating racial preferences in college admissions is that doing so does not lower the number of minority college students, it just redistributes them to schools for which they are actually qualified, rather than catapulting them into academic environments where they will inevitably struggle. Getting rid of racial preferences in college admissions would result in more minority STEM and business graduates rather than fewer, since underrepresented minority students intending to major in STEM would be placed in schools where the teaching is pitched to their level of preparation. This is the college experience of whites and Asians, who are admitted without racial preferences. Only blacks and Hispanics operate under the handicap of being sent to schools for which they are unprepared.
The wave of anti-preference voter initiatives in the 1990s was one of the most important conservative victories at the ballot box of the past two decades. If Washington voters pass Referendum 88 and uphold Initiative 1000, it will have a cascading effect across the country, accelerating ongoing efforts to reintroduce legalized discrimination into government practice. The initiative’s fate will be an important test of how much the elite rhetoric of racial victimology has penetrated beyond Democratic politics, big business, the academy, and the media.