Top Republican lawmakers across the country have raised concerns in recent months about the alleged “indoctrination” of students with concepts like systemic racism and privilege.
Now, in North Carolina, they’re turning their attention to how public universities and employers admit and hire diverse applicants.
On Wednesday, Senate leader Phil Berger announced legislation to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2022 to ban affirmative action in North Carolina. Specifically, Senate Bill 729 would prohibit discrimination against or preferential treatment toward “any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.”
But where are affirmative action policies used in North Carolina? Here are answers to some questions about how they’re used in admissions and employment as well as how the legislative process works to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot.
What is affirmative action?
Affirmative action generally refers to policies used by universities and employers to proactively admit or hire applicants from underrepresented backgrounds or historically disadvantaged groups. The push to boost access to employment opportunities for minority candidates began at the federal level in the 1960s.
The implementation of racial quotas — one measure to enhance the number of applicants from underrepresented backgrounds — was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978 for violating the U.S. Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Where is affirmative action used in North Carolina?
Unlike a handful of other states, North Carolina does not currently prohibit the consideration of race in university admissions, but that could change if the constitutional amendment Berger proposed on July 14 becomes a reality.
Of the 16 public four-year universities in North Carolina, seven reported that they consider race or ethnicity during the admissions process, according to Ballotpedia. Those include North Carolina State University, UNC-Wilmington and UNC-Chapel Hill.
UNC-Chapel Hill was sued in 2014 over its race conscious admissions policy, and has said in response that an applicant’s race is an important but not dominant factor in improving diversity on campus, which enhances the academic experience for all students. The trial in federal court over UNC-Chapel Hill’s admissions policy concluded last November, but a ruling has not yet been issued.
Current North Carolina law passed in 2015 also requires state departments, the legislative and judicial branches, and the UNC System to develop and submit annual Equal Employment Opportunity plans for how they will “assure equitable and fair representation” in employment.
Who would be affected by the proposed constitutional amendment?
The legislation introduced by Republican lawmakers on Wednesday only prohibits the consideration of race and other factors in “the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.” That would likely include any public college or universities that have race-conscious admissions policies, and it would also concern the hiring of state or local government employees, or the awarding of government contracts.
Why are some opposed to affirmative action?
Opponents of affirmative action in universities and employment argue that considering an applicant’s race or ethnicity results in the same racial discrimination that the policies were originally designed to prevent. Students for Fair Admissions, the anti affirmative-action group that originally sued UNC in 2014, argued that admissions data show the university gave preference to Black and Hispanic students over white and Asian-American students.
During a news conference on Wednesday, Berger said passing the constitutional amendment banning affirmative action would affirm “our commitment to the principles of the (1964) Civil Rights Act.”
What happens next? How does an amendment get on a ballot?
Before the proposed constitutional amendment can be put on the ballot, the bill Berger and other lawmakers introduced will need to be approved by three-fifths of the Senate and House. That would require the support of at least a handful of Democrats in each chamber, which might prove to be tricky.
If the bill clears both Republican-led chambers by the required three-fifths margin, it’ll be put on the ballot in the statewide primary election next year. It will bypass the desk of Gov. Roy Cooper, who can’t veto constitutional amendments.
How many votes are needed to approve a constitutional amendment in NC?
Constitutional amendments need to be approved by a majority of voters and take effect on Jan. 1 of the following year, according to the state constitution. And they can be subject to legal challenges, even after they’ve been ratified. That happened with the controversial Amendment One, which banned same-sex marriage and was approved by voters in 2012 before it was struck down by a federal judge in 2014.