How “Race Neutrality” Can Save Affirmative Action

Americans’ surprising commitment to fairness.

With its much-anticipated decision in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that while it wouldn’t strike down racial preferences in college admissions, it would raise the standards for their use. If colleges and universities are to diversify their student bodies, the Court ruled, they should adopt race-neutral vehicles with which to do it. Indeed, as Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “If ‘a nonracial approach … could promote the substantial interest about as well and at tolerable administrative expense,’ … then the university may not consider race.”

One might expect the general public to embrace Kennedy’s opinion. After all, affirmative action, like many other race-conscious policies, is quite unpopular. Academic studies show that many people see a personal or group interest at stake in these policies—or what’s perceived as a zero-sum trade-off. This in turn activates what social scientists call a “group conflict” mentality, where issues are viewed through the lens of fixed pie sizes and group competition. From this perspective, whites and Asians might oppose race-conscious admissions preferences because when more seats are allocated to blacks and Hispanics, it means that fewer seats will go to “people like us.”

But what would public support look like if colleges and universities diversified their classes in a “race-neutral” way? Is “race neutrality” merely a rationalization for whites to use in protecting their share of the pie, or is there a genuine concern for the fairness of the process? If a racially neutral policy were to create more seats for blacks and Hispanics, would the public be more supportive—even if the increase came at the expense of whites and Asians? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is yes.

We gauged the authenticity of the public’s commitment to the principle of “race neutrality” with an experiment conducted in California just as that state was adopting a race-neutral approach to diversifying its premier state universities. The University of California system had gone from using race as an explicit “plus factor” to a process whereby the top 4 percent of students at each high school in the state would be guaranteed admission to a UC campus. The beauty of this approach is that it is racially neutral on its face, and yet it assures that a racially and socioeconomically diverse set of students would be admitted into the first-tier state universities. The downside of this “4 percent solution” is that racial diversity at the university level is only achieved when high schools are racially segregated, as in many cases they are.

Our project started with a baseline question about support for racial quotas. Responding to this question, only one-third of non-Hispanic whites approve of racial quotas, while almost 60 percent oppose them. Focusing on these opponents, we decided to test whether any diversity policy could win their approval—either a race-neutral one or one that ensured that whites did not have to give up any seats.

Our experiment randomly split our quota opponents into two groups. The first group was asked whether they would approve of simply adding new seats to an entering university class and then allocating these seats to blacks and Hispanics so that whites and Asians would not lose out. In other words, we proposed a race-conscious process to diversify a student body, but one that does not damage the personal or group interests of these white opponents. The second group was asked whether they would approve of a race-neutral effort—one focused on socioeconomic background, rather than race—to diversify the university. Unlike the proposal considered by the first group, this proposal did not offer respondents any assurance that whites and Asians would keep the same number of seats in the new process as in the old—but it would be race-blind.

What we found was that the white opponents of racial quotas consider the race-neutral option to be significantly more appealing than the “larger pie” option. Only 24 percent of whites who reject quotas in the opening question came to accept the racially conscious option, even though it would not hurt whites and Asians. In contrast, 36 percent of the white opponents of racial quotas presented with the race-neutral option changed their mind, saying they approved of the race-neutral approach. This difference is modest, but meaningful. While some might argue that whites’ commitment to racial neutrality is surface deep—a convenient rationale to maintain self-serving preferences—our results suggest something different: that this commitment is, for many, real and authentic. Many respondents exhibit a willingness to entertain racially neutral ways to increase black and Hispanic representation, even if it may cost their group and possibly their own personal interests.

It is easy to see why race neutrality is such an attractive concept. For liberals and conservatives alike, it is part of the American ethos, sounding in the founding documents and reverberating throughout our shared history. The liberal touchstone is Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” As historian Taylor Branch writes, that speech “projected [King] across the racial divide and planted him as a new founding father.”

When it comes to affirmative action, conservative leaders also find race neutrality attractive, and the concept provides the basis for their opposition to racial preferences. Without race neutrality, affirmative action could be construed as a clash of interests, with whites and minorities on different sides. But viewed through a race-neutral lens, the opposition to racial preferences emanates from principle. It becomes about rewarding merit and talent in a color-blind fashion—a point much in line with a general conservative attachment to individualism, competition, and “just deserts.”

It is thus worth noting that self-described conservatives did not respond to the experiment as others did. Given the zeal with which conservative leaders have embraced race neutrality as a core principle, one might expect the race-neutral treatment to resonate more powerfully with rank-and-file conservatives than with liberals or moderates. That, however, is not the case. We find that when we compare the effectiveness of the race-neutral and race-conscious frames within ideological subgroups, the gap between them is smallest among conservatives—just where it might have been largest. In fact, the race-neutral frame appears to be about twice as effective at winning over nonconservatives as conservatives: it persuades 48 percent of liberals, moderates, and people who do not report their ideology, but only 23 percent of conservatives. In the end, conservatives make up only about 10 percent of the affirmative action converts.

Where does this leave us with respect to Justice Kennedy’s remedies? With regard to affirmative action, a significant number of Americans, like Kennedy, can be persuaded to approve of race-neutral mechanisms for expanding diversity. Indeed, together with proponents of racial preferences, there is clear majority support for allowing universities to serve as vehicles for social mobility and racial change. More generally, we argue that advocates of diversity policies can attract new sources of popular support—necessary support, if diversity-increasing polices are to survive—by changing the ways people habitually think about issues of race.

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James M. Glaser and Timothy J. Ryan

James M. Glaser and Timothy J. Ryan are professor of political science and dean of academic affairs for arts and sciences at Tufts University and a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, respectively. They are the authors of the recent book Changing Minds, if Not Hearts: Political Remedies for Racial Conflict.