The Right Coast

March 29, 2004
Colorado Fails to Eliminate Racial Preferences
By Gail Heriot

It is difficult to deny that racial preferences are unpopular. In California and Washington, the two states that have had voter initiatives on the ballot prohibiting such policies, the intiatives have passed by substantial margins (54.6% in California and 58.22% in Washington).

Moreover, judging by surveys described by public opinion experts Paul Sniderman and Thomas Piazza, the results in California and Washington may have significantly understated opposition to such policies: The affirmative action agenda "is politically controversial precisely because most Americans do not disagree about it," they wrote in The Scar of Race. "The distribution of public opinion on ... affirmative action ... is unmistakable .... [T]here is scarcely any support ... among whites." Polls cited by Sniderman & Piazza show that even African Americans are "split right down the middle on affirmative action." Some polls show opposition higher than 90%; all polls show overall opposition to be high.

Even so, it has proven almost impossible to end racial preferences through legislation. It is the classic special interest policy. A few people benefit handsomely from preferences, particularly preferences in public contracting. They desperately want to retain these discriminatory policies and they are willing to do whatever is necessary to keep them going. One group even calls itself the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action By Any Means Necessary (BAMN). In the end, legislators, timid souls that they are, always cave to them. And on Friday, the Colorado Senate joined the list.

Because I co-chaired California's Proposition 209 campaign, I sometimes get calls from state legislators around the country interested in sponsoring legislation that would ban racial and gender preferences in their state. I've spoken to several thoughtful and hardworking representatives from both parties who are convinced that justice requires them to act to prohibit these policies. Invariably, however, they have misjudged the power of the affirmative action lobby. Despite support from the public at large, they find themselves unable to garner the support of the majority of their colleagues. The effort collapses. That's apparently what happned to State Senator Ed Jones, the African American Republican who sponsored the Colorado bill. It lost 18 to 17, in a mostly party-line vote in which one Republican senator defected to vote with the Democrats.

I have come to believe that popular initiatives are the only effective way to deal with the issue. It's a shame, since in many ways popular initiatives are an unwieldy tool. Since Colorado is an initiative state, we may see such an effort soon. Stay tuned.