What's Race Got to Do With It?

Government aid should be based on need, not skin color.

By Zaid Jilani

The Biden administration is rolling out economic support for American restaurants, an initiative set into motion by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. That’s good news: America’s restaurants have been battered by lockdowns and understandable hesitancy by many Americans to go out to eat during the pandemic. Government support is probably necessary to kickstart a lot of America’s beloved eateries after pandemic-related loss.

You might imagine that a rational way to prioritize these funds would be by need. But if you start filling out an application to participate in the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, as the program is called, you’ll find that for the first 21 days it will prioritize small businesses that are “at least 51 percent owned by one or more individuals” who are women, veterans, or “socially and economically disadvantaged.” That last part includes individuals “who have been subjected to racial or ethnic prejudice or cultural bias as a member of a group without regard to their individual qualities.”

This is a bizarre way to distribute government support. The purpose of this fund is to help restaurant-sector businesses that have been battered by the pandemic. What should skin color have to do with it? Sure, some businesses owned by members of minority groups have been hurt badly by the pandemic, but then you could simply prioritize them based on economic need. Using skin color as an approximation for need will have perverse outcomes.

For instance, if you read the sample form on the website, you will see that the government has its definition of groups that are “presumed to be socially disadvantaged: Black Americans; Hispanic Americans; Native Americans (including Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians); Asian Pacific Americans; or Subcontinent Asian Americans.” 

It’s notable that, on average, some individuals in those categories listed are actually more economically secure than white Americans are. For instance, Asian-Americans on average out-earn all the other groups, including whites, in the United States.

Sure, you can out-earn someone else and still be subject to more “prejudice or cultural bias” than they are, but why should that be a major factor in how the government is distributing pandemic aid? And let’s be honest: If you run, say, a popular Pakistani restaurant, you can actually benefit from being from an interesting cultural group. (I should know, being a Pakistani who frequently visits them.) 

Unfortunately, the Restaurant Revitalization Fund is one area among many where government officials, mostly Democrats, are increasingly deciding that ancestry or the dicey category of “race” should be a significant factor in how the government deals out largesse. 

Witness, for instance, the city of Oakland, California, partnering with private donors to set up a guaranteed income pilot program that will offer unconditional $500 cash grants to low-income families. But there’s a catch: The program is only available to racial minorities. Is there any reason why poor white people would not need this money? The typical race-conscious progressive response is that minorities are simply worse off than white people, and while that may be true for some, it is certainly not true for all. Using racial stereotypes to approximate the condition of someone’s life has a dark history in the United States, and it remains unlikely to result in government policy that treats everyone fairly.

Remarkably, while progressives have increasingly endorsed race-based policies to correct what they believe are historical and persistent inequities caused by racism, there is little support from the general public for doing so.

Take, for instance, California Proposition 16, which was on the ballot for the November 2020 elections. Prop 16 was an attempt to overturn Prop 209, a 1996 ballot initiative that effectively banned racial preferences in college admissions and state hiring. Prop 209 had long been the bane of race-conscious progressives’ existence, and they surely felt that in a more diverse state—California was a majority white state in 1996 and is majority-minority today—they would have a good chance of overturning it. 

Prop 16 had the support of virtually the entire California Democratic Party and many major corporations, such as Uber, Twitter, and Facebook. It also happened to outraise the other side by around 17 to 1.

Yet Prop 16 went down in flames, with 57 percent of voters rejecting it. Pre-election polling suggests that a large reason why is because only a minority of Latinos voted for it. Much of the opposition to Prop 16 was led by Asian-American immigrants.

California is hardly an outlier. If you look at polling from Pew, a large majority of Americans oppose race and ethnicity being considered during hiring and promotions. That includes majorities of every single racial group.

Americans simply don’t think it will end very well if we try to apportion the opportunities in this country by race. We understand that we need to do more to promote a fair shot for everyone—the same Pew poll cited above shows that most people support workplace diversity—but we also know that simply rewarding people based on the color of their skin is discrimination, and ultimately we can’t fight discrimination with discrimination.

Progressives should stop trying to reify the category of race. It’s time to look for better ways to lift up the underprivileged and expand opportunities to everyone. We simply don’t have to divide people up by skin color or ancestry to do that. 

Zaid Jilani is a journalist based in Arlington, Virginia. He has worked for the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley; The Intercept, and the Center for American Progress. He maintains his own Substack where he writes about current affairs at inquire.substack.com.