The political costs of racial preferences

Donald Trump had a rally this weekend in Arizona:

Former President Donald Trump on Saturday claimed that white people are being discriminated against and sent to the “back of the line” when it comes to receiving COVID-19 vaccines and treatment.

Speaking during a rally in Florence, Arizona, Trump alleged that coronavirus vaccines and treatments are being unfairly “rationed” and withheld from white Americans in some states.

“The left is now rationing life-saving therapeutics based on race, discriminating against and denigrating, just denigrating white people to determine who lives and who dies,” Trump said during his speech. “You get it based on race. In fact, in New York state, if you’re white, you have to go to the back of the line to get medical help. If you’re white, you go right to the back of the line.”

In my post last week, I argued that using race/ethnicity as risk factors when allocating Paxlovid is justified if our goal is to minimize deaths and there is evidence that Blacks/Hispanics are more vulnerable to omicron than Whites, and I criticized the New York Department of Health for not providing the relevant evidence on vulnerability.  Here I want to briefly discuss the political and legal costs of using race/ethnicity as a risk factor.  These costs need to be considered by policymakers even if a policy can be justified on the merits.

The political cost of using explicit racial preferences is clear:  policies that appear to favor Blacks and other disadvantaged groups are unpopular.  This is why, for example, voters in highly Democratic California rejected a constitutional amendment to allow affirmative action in public hiring and higher education by a margin of 14 points

The fact that racial preferences and quotas are unpopular does not mean that they are never justified, or that policymakers should never use them to reduce racial disparities.  It does mean that using race-based policies often has a significant political cost.  It drives some swing voters who might otherwise support Democratic candidates to vote for Republicans.  When policymakers at the NYDH use race and ethnicity as risk factors, this plays into the hands of Republicans who use race as a wedge issue to win elections despite their relatively unpopular positions on social economic policy.  As Trump’s speech illustrates, this is not at all a hypothetical risk.

Explicit racial preferences are also vulnerable to legal attack.  Under existing Supreme Court rulings, policies that are not facially race-neutral need to meet a high standard of justification.  There is a real risk that a poorly justified policy that appears to favor Black/Hispanic people over Whites in access to a lifesaving drug will be struck down by the Court.  Even worse, the Court may well use such a contentious policy to set a precedent that will make it harder to sustain other race-conscious policies, including affirmative action.

Again, this risk is far from hypothetical.  Efforts to ensure that Black farmers and Black-owned businesses receive pandemic aid were both enjoined by the courts.  The Justice Department fears that an appeal in the case concerning Black farmers will lose. 

I am not saying that any of this is fair.  It’s not.  Racial inequities in the United States are appalling, and sometimes explicitly racial policies are the best way to address them.  But politics ain’t beanbag, and it’s not a morality play.  This is a dangerous moment, and proponents of racial justice need to consider the political and legal implications of their choices carefully.