SRC Survey Results Suggest Broad Support for Fairness Programs

By Ellen Spears

Vol. 20, No. 1, 1998 p. 23

"The country is witnessing a concerted and well-planned campaign to destroy affirmative action for women and minorities. In the end that effort will fail, partly because those behind it are totally misreading public opinion."

- Veteran pollster Louis Harris, writing in The Future of Affirmative Action, 1996.

By now we know that despite the momentum that appears against it in the courts and the press, polls reveal a majority of Americans support affirmative action. An even greater number support specific programs that assist women and people of color in overcoming the effects of present and past discrimination.

As evidenced by the vote on the Houston, Texas initiative in November, 1997, the language of the debate is key: "Shall the Charter of the City of Houston be amended to end the use of affirmative action for women and minorities in the operation of the City of Houston employment and contracting, including ending the current program and any similar programs in the future?" When Houston voters faced that question, rather than the misleading preferential treatment language of Proposition 209, they voted 54.5 percent to 44.5 percent to retain the Minority, Women, and Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (MWDBE) and related programs sponsored by the city.

Public opinion on affirmative action is complex : what various constituencies are willing to do to remedy the effects of past and present discrimination has a great deal to do with how they perceive the facts about and causes of discrimination. Polling data from surveys conducted by the Southern Regional Council and others illustrate some of the nuances in public attitudes about the debate. SRC's survey was a national telephone poll conducted by John Doble Research Associates which questioned 1216 randomly selected adults in September, 1996. A further analysis of the survey data was carried out by Tom Smith, Director of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center. The project is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

"Several attitudes are associated with more support for affirmative action policies," writes Tom Smith, "favoring liberal priorities, believing that inequality results from discrimination and not from negative personal traits, agreeing that many groups are discriminated against and that black people are discriminated against in many areas of life."

Whites who see more discrimination against black Americans support more measures to remedy racial inequalities. For example, 56 percent of whites who see a great deal of discrimination favor reserving openings in college for black students, versus only 32 percent of whites who see none.

There is a strong gender gap in support for affirmative action. Despite widespread belief to the contrary, nearly half of men support affirmative action (48 percent). And 15 percent more, almost two-thirds of women (63 percent) support affirmative action.

The survey results suggest frames for discussing affirmative action that garner the broadest support. "[S]upport for affirmative action is highly conditional on how the policy is presented and what steps are actually called for," says Smith. "Support is greatest when measures emphasize equal opportunity, reject the use of quotas, highlight women, and stress the qualifications of members of the targeted group. Support is weakest when measures are described as quotas or preferential treatment, mention only racial minorities, and refer to possible discrimination against whites or white men."

"Opposition to affirmative action," notes Tom Smith, "centers more on a caricature of it rather than on a balanced description of the policy." The talking points (page 24) incorporate the findings from this and other polling.

What both researchers stress is the need for leadership in activating public opinion in support of affirmative action. "Leadership is critical," concludes John Doble. "Judging from the breadth and depth of support people gave to remedies to reducing racial inequality, the public will respond to a call from leadership. There is broad, latent support for a host of measures. But the depth of public support suggests most white Americans do not see this as an urgent issue that demands national action. If leaders choose to ignore this issue, most Americans will, the results suggest, silently acquiesce."

Ellen Spears is managing editor of Southern Changes.