May 14, 2003

Conflicted Views of Affirmative Action

Summary of Findings

As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares for what could be a landmark ruling on the issue of racial preferences in college admissions, a new Pew Research Center nationwide survey finds a growing majority of the public supporting the general idea of affirmative action. But the poll results also reflect the public’s complicated and sometimes contradictory attitudes about the subject.

There is support for the rationale of affirmative action ­ such as overcoming past discrimination or increasing the diversity of students in college. But at the same time, Americans question the fairness of such programs, the rationale notwithstanding.

When the details of specific affirmative action programs are raised, public reservations increase. Further, when people are questioned about programs involving preferential treatment for minorities, opinion turns negative. On all questions about affirmative action there are predictable racial differences in opinion, but significant gender differences are evident as well, even when the issue of gender inequality is not mentioned in the question.

Relatively few people ­ white or black ­ report having real life experiences with affirmative action: only 16% overall have been helped or hurt. Among those who’ve been affected, whites generally say they were hurt while blacks say they have been helped.

Majorities Approve of Affirmative Action, But Many Have Doubts

In the current poll, conducted April 30-May 4 among 1,201 adults nationwide, 63% say they favor “affirmative action programs designed to help blacks, women, and other minorities get better jobs and education.” There is somewhat less support (57%) when the question specifically mentions giving “special preferences” to women and minorities. A more pointed Pew question last year that stressed “preferential treatment” but did not mention affirmative action, past discrimination or women, found only 24% supporting “every possible effort” to improve the position of minorities.

Both versions of the general question ­ with and without the reference to “special preferences” ­ found greater support for affirmative action than in 1995. In addition, the mention of special preferences made more of a difference in 1995, when 58% favored affirmative action when no reference was made to preferences, compared with 46% in the version mentioning preferences. In the current survey, there is only a six point gap between the two versions of the question.

The distinction between the general idea of affirmative action and the use of racial preferences matters much more for whites than for nonwhites: 86% of nonwhites favor affirmative action in general, and 82% favor racial preferences. Among whites, 58% support the general concept, but only 49% support preferences for minorities. Most of the difference in the impact of the reference to preferences occurs among whites with a high school education or less: 66% favor affirmative action in general, but only 51% favor it with racial preferences. Among college educated whites, the same percentage (51%) favor affirmative action whether preferences are mentioned or not.

College Admissions

More people think affirmative action programs in college admissions are a good thing than think they are fair. Overall, a solid majority of 60% say such programs are a good thing. Even a majority of white respondents (54%) agrees with this sentiment. Only 30% overall say they are a bad thing (35% among whites). The vast majority of African-Americans see these programs as good (87%), and two-thirds of other nonwhites agree (67%). Over three-fourths of Hispanics (77%) like them. More white women than white men see affirmative action in college admissions programs as a good thing (by a margin of 60% to 49%).

But significantly more people worry about the fairness of the programs. Less than a majority overall (47%) say they are fair, and 42% say they are unfair. Black-white differences on this question are much smaller than on the question of whether such programs are a good thing or not. Among whites, 43% think the programs are unfair; 35% of blacks agree, as do 41% of other nonwhites. But Hispanics are much less concerned about the fairness of the programs: 70% say they are fair and only 27% see them as unfair.

The Impact of Affirmative Action

Only a small fraction of the public (16%) reports having been directly affected by affirmative action programs. Overall, 11% say they’ve been hurt, 4% have been helped. Among blacks, 14% say they have been helped by such programs, while 5% say they’ve been hurt. Among other non-whites, about equal numbers have been helped (11%) and hurt (13%).

Most Hispanics say they’ve been unaffected , but 4% say affirmative action has helped them and 8% say it’s hurt them. By a margin of 13% to 2%, whites say they’ve been hurt rather than helped ­ and more white men (17%) than women (9%) say this. As many white liberals as conservatives say they’ve been hurt.

A significant number of people ­ though much less than a majority ­ perceive that affirmative action programs stigmatize minorities. Overall, 27% of Americans ­ including 26% of whites and 37% of blacks ­ say that most people attribute minorities’ successes in business and education to racial preferences, rather than their own skills and abilities.

The Affirmative Action Debate: Still Below the Radar

Despite the flurry of press attention to the University of Michigan case, relatively few people ­ 18% ­ report having heard very much about the case, and fewer ­12% ­ say they have been very closely following news about the affirmative action debate in general. Despite being more interested in public debate over affirmative action, Blacks are more likely than whites to have not heard about the University of Michigan court case.

The case is more visible to the college educated (36% have heard a lot about it), than to the less educated (only 10% of high school graduates have heard a lot). And the issue of affirmative action has attracted much greater attention from liberal Democrats (27% following very closely) than from Republicans, independents, or moderate Democrats.