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Colorblind Equality: A Winning Issue for McCain?

Opposing race-based preferences could help power a McCain comeback.

by
John Rosenberg

Bio

July 23, 2008 - 12:00 am

Does John McCain really want to win? His failure to come out forcefully for colorblind equality suggests that he might not, and that even if he does, he won’t.

National polls have consistently shown that substantial majorities oppose preferential treatment based on race. In five polls from 1977 through 1991, Gallup found that at no time did support for preferential treatment exceed 11%. Recent polls continue to find strong majority opposition.

• An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Jan. 2003, found that 65% opposed and 26% favored the “use [of] race as one of the factors in admissions to increase diversity” in colleges.

• A Gallup poll, June 2003, found that 69% of all respondents (75% of whites; 59% of Hispanics; 44% of blacks) opposed allowing race and ethnicity to be considered “to help promote diversity on college campuses.”

• A Newsweek poll, July 2007, found that 82% of all adults (86% of whites, 75% of non-whites) disapproved of allowing race to be considered “as a factor in making decisions about employment and education.”

• A Quinnipiac University poll, Aug. 2007, found that 71% agreed and 24% disagreed with the recent Supreme Court ruling “that public schools may not consider an individual’s race when deciding which students are assigned to specific schools.”

• A Newsweek poll, May 2008, found that 72% disapprove and 21% approve of “giving preferences to blacks and other minorities in things like hirings, promotions, and college admissions.”

Nor is it necessary to rely on opinion surveys to plumb the depths of popular opposition to racial preferences. In the three states where voters have been given an opportunity to vote race preferences up or down — California, Washington, and most recently Michigan, all solid blue, liberal states — they have voted to write the “without regard” principle of colorblind equality into their state constitutions by substantial majorities.

Despite some rhetorical flourishes (more like feints) promising a new politics that would transcend race, Obama has never wavered (no flip-flop here!) in his support for policies that benefit some and burden others based on their race or ethnicity. In 2006 he even made an ad urging Michigan voters to oppose the principle of colorblind equality — fortunately to no avail: the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI) passed with 58% of the vote, even as the Democratic candidates for governor and senator won landslide victories.

Indeed, in a lesson McCain and the Republican establishment apparently still haven’t learned, the only Republican candidate for statewide office who won in Michigan in 2006 was Mike Cox, who was re-elected attorney general. It is no coincidence (though it also is no doubt not the sole explanation of his victory) that Cox was the only Republican candidate who supported MCRI.

And Michigan may well be a bellwether in the coming election. In his highly regarded political newsletter, Stuart Rothenberg writes that the five states that will determine who is the next president are Michigan, Colorado, Virginia, Ohio, and Nevada.

Whatever his preferences, McCain will not be able to avoid taking a stand for or against colorblind equality much longer, if for no other reason than a Colorado civil rights initiative, virtually identical to the proposals that passed in California, Washington, and Michigan, will be on the ballot there next fall and will be hotly contested. Similar initiatives will also be on the ballot in Nebraska and McCain’s home state of Arizona, where he has also dodged the issue so far. (Democrats and liberal interest groups succeeded in depriving voters in Missouri and Oklahoma of the opportunity to vote on similar proposals this year.)

I’m not sure why Republicans remain so fearful of allying themselves with a popular principle that is so fundamental. Gunnar Myrdal and others have called it “The American Creed.” Could McCain, who showed undaunted courage in standing up to the torturers in Hanoi, really be afraid of being called a racist by the likes of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson? Is he intimidated by the prospect of a cover of the New Yorker depicting him in Klan garb?

Whatever the reason, I believe a strong, principled, unequivocal statement by McCain supporting the core value of colorblind equality would go a long way toward energizing his now lethargic base, securing victory in the crucial states of Colorado, Virginia, and Michigan, and strengthen his campaign almost everywhere else, except perhaps New York, California, and Illinois — and maybe even in those states. He’s not going to win any more black votes by refusing to endorse the principle of colorblind equality, and may even lose a few.

If a moderate, likable Republican strongly supporting colorblind equality, and thus opposing race preferences, can’t win Michigan, Virginia, and Colorado running against a fancy-talking but empty-suit liberal Democrat who supports race preferences, then he should fold up his tent now and go home.

About the only consolation I can see in McCain failing to come out strongly for colorblind equality is that if he loses I won’t be as disappointed as I otherwise would be.

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.
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