The Wall Street Journal
Racial preference has never achieved what proponents promised. Why would it this time?
By Jason L. Riley
The Supreme Court ruled Monday that race can be a factor, but not the predominant one, when states draw maps for legislative districts.
If that formulation sounds familiar, it’s because the same court has offered similarly useless guidance regarding affirmative action in college admissions. Both state officials and college administrators deserve better, as do the supposed beneficiaries of these policies.
Race-driven legislative districting is an outgrowth of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was intended to ensure that historically disenfranchised blacks had the ballot access guaranteed by the 15th Amendment.
The law’s passage was followed by a sharp increase in black voter registration, particularly in the Deep South. In 1964 black voter registration in Mississippi was less than 7%, but by 1966 it was 60%. In Georgia the figure climbed from 19% to 51% over the same period. It would seem that the law had worked as Congress intended.
As with so much civil-rights legislation, however, the goal posts moved over time. An effort to ensure ballot access became an effort to secure the election of black officials.
And despite decades of evidence that whites now regularly vote for nonwhite candidates—including Barack Obama, who in 2008 carried a majority of white voters in nearly a third of states—we continue to pretend that voters must be racially segregated in order for blacks to win office.
Besides being outdated, current interpretations and enforcement of the Voting Rights Act probably do more to hamper black candidates and facilitate racial polarization.
Running for office in a district drawn to guarantee a winner from a certain racial or ethnic group gives a candidate little incentive to appeal to voters outside that group. Insulated politicians are less accountable and more given to extreme positions held by few beyond their small base of supporters.
The Congressional Black Caucus has one of the most liberal voting records in Congress year after year, and black candidates from overstuffed minority districts struggle to win statewide.
Affirmative action has a similar record—to the detriment of the people it intends to help. In the decades immediately following implementation of racial preferences in the 1970s, the number of whites living in poverty fell while the number of impoverished blacks increased, and incomes for the poorest blacks declined at more than double the rate of comparable whites.
After the University of California system ended race-based admissions by referendum in 1996, black graduation rates increased.
A policy designed to help the black middle class had in practice hampered black economic progress.
The U.S. is not the only place where racial preferences haven’t achieved what proponents promised.
Last week’s Economist magazine includes a story with the headline, “Race-based affirmative action is failing poor Malaysians.”
Anyone familiar with the trajectory of affirmative action policies in America will recognize the similarities.
“Schemes favouring Malays were once deemed essential to improve the lot of Malaysia’s least wealthy racial group; these days they are widely thought to help mostly the well-off within that group, while failing the poor and aggravating ethnic tensions,” the magazine reports. “Yet affirmative action persists because it is a reliable vote-winner for the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the Malay party that has dominated government since independence.”
After the British colonists left in the 1950s, Malaysia implemented racially discriminatory policies that favored the indigenous population over immigrant laborers and merchants from China and elsewhere.
Malays, who comprise the majority of the population, receive preferential treatment for government loans, jobs and public university admissions. Marketplaces in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, reserve spaces for Malay shopkeepers and ban ethnic Chinese and Indian entrepreneurs from doing business there.
Policies that were supposed to be temporary—proponents said they would be needed for no longer than 20 years—have not only continued for more than twice as long but also expanded.
Just as preferences for blacks in the U.S. eventually spread to other groups, including Hispanics and women, Malaysia’s racial and ethnic spoils system has grown to include other indigenous populations deemed worthy of special consideration.
Racial preferences have lowered standards at public universities as non-Malay students and professors have fled to merit-based private institutions. And Malay students who know that their job prospects don’t depend on academic performance feel less pressure to study hard.
The Malay government is well aware that these policies have resulted in an “entitlement culture,” but the political imperative is to do what’s popular today, regardless of the consequences tomorrow. That, too, it seems, is a global feature of affirmative action policies in practice.