Affirmative Action in the People's Court

By Citrin, Jack | The Public Interest, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Affirmative Action in the People's Court


Citrin, Jack, The Public Interest


The 1996 elections promise to be, in part, a referendum on the question of race. The passage of Proposition 187 in California has already prompted immigration reform. Now, the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI) has pierced the cocoon of establishment support that has long protected affirmative-action programs from the judgment of the American people. With presidential ambitions at stake and partisan battle lines drawn, it seems clear that voters will, for the first time, have a direct say about the future of preferential-treatment programs.

But, since the meaning of affirmative action and how to implement it were controversial and polarizing issues from the beginning, the timing of the electoral assault on minority set-asides, special programs in college admissions, and race- or gender-based hiring is puzzling. The question is, "Why now?"

Despite a long history of polling about affirmative action, trend data is scarce, and there are just specks of information concerning approval of programs targeted at groups other than blacks. In addition, survey questions frequently do not accurately mimic the ongoing political and legal arguments about affirmative action and, thus, fail to assess reactions to specific justifications or criticisms.

These caveats aside, it is clear that, over a period of 40 years, the widespread acceptance of segregation and racial discrimination among white Americans has given way to massive support for the general principles of integration and equal treatment. When affirmative action is depicted in these general terms, it seems to stand for racial progress and tends to command majority support. Where specific policies are concerned, it is clear that "soft," opportunity-enhancing approaches are accepted, while "hard," preference-giving programs are widely unpopular.(1)

The summary of data by Seymour Martin Lipset and William Schneider, published in 1978, identified this pattern of opinion early in the history of affirmative action. Most whites approved of special training programs and other interventions aimed at improving the skills, and thus the opportunities, of blacks, while consistently rejecting any procedure that favored a "less qualified" member of a minority group. Antagonism toward racial preferences prevailed even when survey questions explicitly referred to the need to make up for past discrimination.

After more than a decade of additional national experience with affirmative action, the contours of mass opinion remained largely unchanged. Lipset reported in 1992 that tolerance for programs aimed at enhancing the resources of minorities still coexisted with the belief that "ability" alone should be used in hiring or promotion and with hostility toward anything that raised the specter of a "quota." Now, as earlier, the racial divide in opinion is wider when the public is asked about "hard," rather than "soft," forms of affirmative action.

This suggests that the public is unlikely to sympathize with the growing tendency among elites to conceive of affirmative action as representation rather than compensation. Along these lines, a 1993 national survey conducted by Berkeley political scientist Laura Stoker found that the proportion of respondents willing to require that large companies hire a "certain number" of blacks to make up for past discrimination was 45 percent. Yet even fewer, 25 percent, approved of preferential hiring as a response to the "underrepresentation" of blacks among the company's employees. Widespread antipathy to the idea of achieving diversity through formal preferences also emerged in a 1994 National Opinion Research Survey. This study found that less than 10 percent of the public agreed that the ethnic composition of members of Congress should match that of the general population or that the ethnicity of teachers as a group should resemble that of their students.

With the public opposed both to racial discrimination and to racial preferences, the politically relevant question is how voters interpret the meaning of affirmative action. …

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