James Taranto on Affirmative Action and Public Opinion Polling:

James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal's OpinionJournal.com website has written an interesting response to my posts on affirmative action and public opinion polling (see here and here).

Taranto acknowledges that whether or not survey respondents support affirmative action policies depends on how the questions are worded. Strong majorities will say they support "affirmative action," but reject "discrimination" and "racial preferences." This pattern occurs not just in polls, but also on in referenda on anti-affirmative action ballot questions, with propositions banning "preferences" winning in California, Michigan, and Washington, and one banning "affirmative action" getting defeated in Houston.

However, Taranto claims that the "affirmative action" wording is misleading because "changing 'racial preferences' to 'affirmative action' is a change of meaning, not just wording. 'Affirmative action' is not only a euphemism for discrimination in favor of minorities; it is also a blanket term that encompasses other, less controversial policies." For example, Taranto quotes Justice Kennedy's concurring opinion in the Seattle school case that set off this debate, as an illustration of "non-preference" affirmative action policies:

School boards may pursue the goal of bringing together students of diverse backgrounds and races through other means [than racial preferences in admissions], including strategic site selection of new schools; drawing attendance zones with general recognition of the demographics of neighborhoods; allocating resources for special programs; recruiting students and faculty in a targeted fashion; and tracking enrollments, performance, and other statistics by race.

Taranto's argument is not without some merit. But there are two major problems with it. First, as I pointed out in my initial post on this issue, using the term "preferences" is also misleading because it will lead many voters to think of traditional invidious discrimination against minorities rather than of remedial affirmative action preferences.

Second, most of the supposedly nonpreferential programs listed by Taranto and Justice Kennedy are in fact themselves racial preferences. If, for example, school boards "pursue the goal of bringing together students of diverse . . . races" by trying to increase the percentage of minorities at certain schools, they are still intentionally taking race into account in their decisionmaking and still trying to ensure that the schools in question have some particular percentage of minority students. Similarly, "strategic site selection" of schools based on the racial composition of the surrounding neighborhood is surely a form of race-based decisionmaking that advantages areas with one type of racial composition at the expense of others with a different type. The fact that officials are not using formal racial classifications but are instead using "facially neutral" means does not change the essential nature of what they are doing. Racial balancing cloaked in seemingly neutral language is still racial balancing. As I explained in this post on Texas' "ten percent" college admissions plan:

[I]f it is morally wrong to aim for a given racial balance in a state university student body by using explicit racial preferences, why is it not equally wrong to intentionally try to achieve the same effect through indirect, facially "neutral" means? In the days of Jim Crow, southern states often used facially neutral policies such as literacy tests, poll taxes, and peonage laws to disadvantage blacks. Few today would argue that these policies were somehow morally superior to those Jim Crow laws that discriminated against blacks through explicit racial classifications. If, as critics of affirmative action claim, explicit affirmative action preferences are morally wrong for the same reason that Jim Crow laws were wrong, then "facially neutral" affirmative action systems such as the Texas ten percent are wrong for the same reasons that the facially neutral means of propping up Jim Crow were.

I do not contend that the majority of voters are clearly in favor of affirmative action. Rather, my view is that many of them don't know much about the issue, have not thought about it carefully, and therefore have unclear and often internally contradictory views. This is not in any way unusual, and is a natural consequence of voters' rational ignorance about public policy, which extends to a wide range of issues including some that are far more important than affirmative action. For that reason, I also question Taranto's claim that the voters in the California, Michigan, and Washington referenda reached a clear decision indicative of their true opinions because "they had the opportunity to hear both sides of the argument." While it is certainly true that they had the "opportunity" to hear both sides (something that they also had during the previous 25 years of intense public debate over affirmative action), it is unlikely that very many actually used that opportunity to study the issue in any detail.

UPDATE: Taranto has a rejoinder to this post here. I would first like to apologize to James Taranto for incorrectly referring to him as "Jim." I have corrected this in the original post. However, I remain unpersuaded by his substantive arguments.

In his new post, Taranto claims that initiatives that ban "discrimination" or "preferences" do not mislead voters by leading them to think of traditional discrimination against minorities because they "are intended to apply, to both forms of discrimination." It is true that they are intended to do that, but an unsophisticated voter reading the text is more likely to think of traditional discrimination when seeing the word "preference" or "discrimination" than of affirmative action.

Taranto also notes that his argument "is not that the rewritten language was deceptive but that it changed the meaning of the proposed law by expanding it to encompass nondiscriminatory forms of 'affirmative action.'" I don't think that this distinction undermines my point that questions banning "discrimination" or preferences will lead voters to think of traditional discrimination against minorities. Moreover, as I explain in my post above, the "nondiscriminatory" forms of affirmative action Taranto refers to are in fact preferences themselves.