Debating race preferences

Yesterday several of my colleagues and I attended a debate at the King School of Law at UC Davis, hosted by the Federalist Society, on the role of race preferences in education.  Taking the anti-preference side of the debate was Ward Connerly, former UC Regent, a prominent advocate for ending all government race preferences, and the principal author of California’s Proposition 209 (which amended the state constitution to preclude government use of race or sex in public contracting, employment, and education).  Taking the pro-preference side of the debate was Dean Vikram Amar of UC Davis.

Mr. Connerly began his remarks with a moving recitation of his youth: abandoned by his father at a young age, his mother dying shortly thereafter, attending a segregated school in the Deep South, and working himself through college working three jobs.  He then explained his position that government should treat all citizens the same, and that the use of race or sex as a marker for exhibiting certain presumed beliefs or attitudes is pernicious and counterproductive.

Dean Amar took a largely conciliatory tone, agreeing with Mr. Connerly that a colorblind society should be everyone’s goal, and that affirmative action has not always been implemented wisely or prudently.  But Dean Amar refused to concede that affirmative action is categorically bad policy, and reminded his listeners of President Clinton’s familiar preference apothegm, “mend it, don’t end it.”

Both speakers answered a number of questions from the largely student-composed audience.  These ranged from the utility of race-neutral means for achieving racial diversity and the socioeconomic causes of de facto racial segregation in modern American cities, to the allegedly race-conscious policies still used by UC Davis today.

Although the debate didn’t have a “winner” and “loser,” in my view Mr. Connerly gave the more intellectually and emotionally convincing presentation, in large measure because Mr. Connerly’s vision of a colorblind society is one to which we all aspire and which our federal and state constitutions prescribe.