Seeking an America as Good as its Promise: Remedies for Racial Inequality: The Public's Views

John Doble Research Associates

Vol. 20, No. 4, 1998 pp. 8-10

In September of 1996, the John Doble Research Associates conducted a national survey of racial attitudes for the Southern Regional Council (see Southern Changes, Spring 1997 and Spring 1998). Below is an excerpt from the Council's detailed analysis of this national survey. The research includedfourfocus groups of white Southerners and a national telephone survey of 1,216 randomly selected adults. Tom W. Smith, Director ofthe General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago further analyzed the data. In addition to Doble and Smith, the writing team included Ellen Spears and Preston Quesenberry. The research wassupported bya grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

Combating Discrimination and Racism

Most Americans believe discrimination ought to be punished. First, people favor legal sanctions against discriminators. A plurality say that top priority should be given to legally punishing companies that discriminate in hiring and promotion and real estate agents who steer blacks away from white neighborhoods. A majority also places investigating and prosecuting those responsible for fires in black churches in the South as a top priority. These measures, to directly punish wrongdoers, are especially supported by blacks, younger adults, and those with low incomes.

Second, people want to ban discrimination in employment. In a July-September, 1995 Washington Post poll, 58 percent agreed that, "The federal government should enact tougher anti-discrimination laws to reduce racial discrimination in the workplace." Also, in an October, 1996 CBS poll, 61 percent believed "it is necessary to have laws to protect racial minorities from discrimination in hiring and employment ...."

People are highly supportive of educational measures to improve inter-group relations. In the SRC study 87 percent said that the country should "actively promote and teach racial tolerance and cooperation in the schools." Likewise, an August 1993 research poll found that 65 percent thought it was very desirable for schools to "teach all students about the racial, cultural, and ethnic groups that together make up American society today." In addition, there is support for instructing people about the history of racial groups and discrimination. For example, an April 1994 Los Angeles Times poll found that 63 percent felt it was very important to teach students "about the history of the slavery of black people in the United States." However, feelings are very mixed about whether more instruction is needed. In the 1994 General Social Survey, 23 percent said that too much attention is given to the experiences of racial and ethnic minority groups in history classes, 43 percent said that the right amount of attention was given, 21 percent said that too little was given, and 13 percent did not know.

Americans realize that black-white relations are strained and many see them worsening. In addition, most think that discrimination is still widespread and is a significant cause of the racial disparities in education, occupation, and income that exist. But neither improving race relations, nor decreasing racial inequality are high priorities to mostwhite Americans. Many whites think conditions for blacks and other minorities are improving and that factors other than racism are the major causes for the social imbalances that persist.

People support governmental policies to increase opportunity and reduce inequities. Support is strongest when such policies are directed at the poor, unemployed, and other disadvantaged groups. But even race-based policies receive considerable support. Approval is greatest when policies:

  • promote opportunity;
  • assist the qualified;
  • offer specific remedies to concrete, continuing problems such as under-representation and discrimination;
  • emphasize anti-discrimination measures; and
  • include women along with minorities.

When questions evoke these policies, as they did in the SRC Racial Attitudes Survey, majorities consistently support affirmative action programs.

Approval is least when policies involve quotas and special preferences; present no rationale for assistance, or focus only on the past; and raise the specter of reverse discrimination. When policies are described in this way, majorities oppose them.

The same mixture of support and opposition also emerges regarding minority political representation and residential integration. People want racial minorities to be fairly represented and are even willing, under some circumstances, to endorse special measures to increase their electoral representation. But people are leery of explicitly acknowledging race as a criterion for selecting candidates and dividing up elective offices. Regarding residential integration, people, in principle, oppose segregation and back laws to encourage open housing and punish race steering. Moreover, support for laws promoting residential integration has grown over the last twenty years. But in practice, most people live in and prefer segregated neighborhoods. As a result, residential integration remains slow.

Liberal, proactive positions acknowledging racial problems and supporting policies to reduce racial inequality are most consistently favored by groups that have suffered from discrimination. Blacks typically are most likely to see that there are problems and to back strong measures to deal with the inequities. Women tend to adopt similar points of view, but not as strongly or consistently as blacks. Younger adults (ages 18 to 24) take more liberal positions than adults in older cohorts, which should tend, in time, to push things in a proequality direction. Education and income push in opposite directions. Those with lower in


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comes tend to support measures to redress racial inequalities, but those with more education also lean somewhat in this direction. Finally, community type (farm and non-farm) is not related to these issues and the non-South is more likely to have a liberal viewpoint.

The case for the assertion of a backlash against racial tolerance in general and against affirmative action in particular cites the supposed effectiveness of the Jesse Helms' White Hands ad against Harvey Gantt in their 1990 Senate race, the political clout of the angry white men in the 1994 Congressional election, President Clinton's "Mend it, don't end it," review of federal policies, and the passage of anti-affirmative action Proposition 209 in California.

But in fact survey data shows no general retreat on attitude measures toward race relations. Support for the principles of integration and racial equality have not declined and most measures show more approval than ever before. Moreover, opposition to affirmative action centers more on a caricature of it rather than on a balanced description of this policy. It is only for negatively presented versions of affirmative action that some moderate decline in support has occurred. In contrast, there remains substantial public support for various race-, genderand class-based policies to reduce racial and social disparities.

"But," says General Social Survey Director Tom W. Smith, "uprooting bigotry and equalizing opportunities are not easy tasks. Racism is deeply entrenched, group disparities are large, and efforts to alleviate racial inequality are seen by some as antithetical to core American values such as individualism and even equal treatment itself."

The losses that civil rights in general and affirmative action in particular have suffered, says Smith, are the result primarily, from their defenders being outspent, outmaneuvered and outgunned. But a convincing public argument can be made that racial inequalities should be reduced and that affirmative action programs can contribute to that goal without creating reverse discrimination. The opponents of fairness and equal opportunity appear to have been winning the debate, but that largely reflects the effectiveness of their appeals and not that the public is against policies to reduce racial disparities. A series of victories for affirmative action proponents, in each of thirteen state legislatures where anti-affirmative action legislation was brought forth during 1996 and 1997, gives evidence of this analysis. The outcome of that debate can be changed; the battle for public opinion can be won and the goals of racial equality and intergroup tolerance advanced.