Testing Competing Explanations of Black Opinions on Affirmative Action
Mangum, Maruice, Policy Studies Journal
Affirmative action is a multipurpose term for a set of programs used historically at all levels of government and in the private sector to redress racially based and gender-based discrimination. Affirmative action programs encompass educational opportunities and a wide range of employment activities that run the gamut from training, minority set-aside programs, and goals and timetables to increase diversity. They also include implementing fair and open recruiting strategies and mechanisms to monitor progress in hiring and promoting members of the target groups (racial minorities, women, veterans, and the physically disabled).
Affirmative action continues to be a controversial topic in American society and politics. It is controversial partly because it is a race policy where tangible benefits are at stake. The controversy behind affirmative action is that those not targeted to benefit, namely, white males, perceive affirmative action as reverse discrimination or preferential treatment for members of the targeted groups. Although scholars contend that white women benefit most from affirmative action programs and target many other groups as beneficiaries, blacks are perceived as the primary beneficiaries.
Although white women reap more rewards than other targeted groups, affirmative action programs are designed to benefit blacks more than whites. As members of a targeted group, one would expect blacks to support affirmative action more than whites. In fact, blacks do support affirmative action programs more than whites (Steeh & Krysan, 1996). However, there is some division among black Americans in their views regarding affirmative action. According to the 1996 National Black Election Study, a sizeable minority of blacks opposes affirmative action. In response to the question, "Because of past discrimination, minorities should be given special consideration when decisions are made about hiring applicants for jobs," 38.9 percent of the black respondents expressed support while 28.2 percent were opposed (32.9 percent were missing, not reinterviewed, did not know, or refused to answer).
Why does such a gap exist among black Americans over a policy of which they are designated to benefit as individuals and members of a targeted group? It can be due to question wording because support for or opposition to affirmative action depends on verbiage (Bobo, 2000; Schuman, Steeh, Bobo, & Krysan, 1997; Steeh & Krysan, 1996). However, determining whether question wording affected responses is beyond the scope of this investigation. Rather, support for or opposition to affirmative action is explained using the theories of self-interest, group consciousness, reference group, and a desire for social justice. Toward this end, I construct models that capture the effects of individual-level characteristics (socioeconomic and demographic characteristics), group consciousness (group identification, polar affect, polar power, and individual versus system blame), reference group, and social justice considerations. The 1996 National Black Election Study allows me to measure individual-level and group-level attitudes not tested systematically as part of an effort to explain black opinion on affirmative action.
The study of racial attitudes has a long history in political science (Pinder-Hughes, 1987; Schuman et al., 1997; Sears, Hensler, & Speer, 1979; Sniderman & Hagen, 1985). However, in contrast to the research conducted on white attitudes toward racial policies--in particular, affirmative action--few works discuss black attitudes toward affirmative action in a rigorous and empirical fashion--in fact, so few that I can summarize those works here (Kinder & Sanders, 1996; Tate, 1993). Jacobson (1983) tests the effects of self-interest as measured by sociodemographic indicators to determine the strongest black supporters. He argues that middle-class blacks will be stronger supporters of affirmative action than lower-class blacks. He expected to find that blacks high in income, highly educated, and professional and skilled blacks to be more supportive than older blacks. Concerning self-interest argument, he hypothesized that middle-aged blacks and younger blacks would be more supportive than older blacks. Concerning self-interest, the sociodemographic variables explain little variance. The only significant variables in this part of his analysis were occupation and education. In addition, Jacobson finds that the middle class is not as supportive of affirmative action as he expected. Overall, there is relatively little support for the self-interest theory. However, he found relationships between experience with and attitudes about discrimination and support for affirmative action.
Tate (1993) investigates black opinion on affirmative action using the 1984 Black National Election Study. Sampling 831 blacks, she finds no relationship between social class, party ideology, and partisanship with support for affirmative action. However, there is a strong relationship between race identification and support for affirmative action. Highly identified blacks (index measuring closeness to ideas and feelings about blacks, common fate, and salience of race) were overwhelmingly supportive of the measure. She also analyzes the relationship of socioeconomic and demographic variables with support for affirmative action. Interestingly, there was no relationship between support for affirmative action and individual characteristics such as age, education, income, region, gender, and urbanicity.
Kinder and Sanders (1996) investigate both black and white opinions on racial policies and what they want government to do using the American National Election Study series. They discover that self-interest has a negligible effect on support or opposition between black respondents and that the effects of self-interest are largely negligible to black positions on racial policies. Blacks who perceived a gain from affirmative action were no more supportive than blacks who did not perceive a personal gain. Moreover, several hypotheses were in direct contradiction to what the self-interest theory would have us believe. Group interests, however, played a prominent role in explaining black support.
There are several flaws in the literature on black support for or opposition to affirmative action. First, while all the scholars--rightfully or wrongly--test the effects of self-interest--and invariably conclude the theory's poor explanatory power--they do not place in the same model an alternative theory. Estimating the effects of theories in separate models infers that all explanations are equal, that each may explain what black Americans believe about affirmative action, leaving us without knowing which explanations are weak and which are strong (Kinder & Sanders, 1996). My analysis is an improvement on these works, for I present models that test more hypotheses under the self-interest theory and allow it to compete with other theories (group consciousness, reference group, and social justice theories).
A second shortcoming of the literature is that group consciousness is not well-examined, often underspecified. Scholars have advanced a narrow application to black respondents. Group consciousness has four components: identification, polar affect, polar power, and blame attribution for the group's status to the individual or the system (Miller, Gurin, Gurin, & Malanchuk, 1981). Typically, scholars address group identification, but they do not give the other three components of group consciousness much attention. As an improvement on these works, I account for all four aspects of group consciousness. I present a group consciousness model that tests more hypotheses and more precisely than what is found in the extant literature.
A third limitation of the literature is the tendency to examine a narrow application of each theory or does not consider counterhypotheses applicable to black respondents. A proper test of the effects of black attitudes toward affirmative action should include the effects of perceived discrimination. One can test whether blacks support affirmative action as a shield of protection from discrimination toward blacks. I test whether or not blacks support affirmative action as a way to achieve some measure of social justice.
My final critique of the literature is not entirely the fault of previous researchers. Most of the models might be misspecified or underspecified for two reasons: a small sample size of blacks and less than desirable survey items used to measure concepts. The sample size of blacks in many works ranged from 138 to 200 respondents. Therefore, they are limited in the number of variables they can put in a model and expect them to gain statistical significance, and their estimates will be less precise. Also, the data sets used do not allow for operationalizing the concepts and notions discussed in this investigation. My analysis is an improvement over their works in that I have a much larger sample size. As a result, I can consider more comprehensive models of support and test additional hypotheses.
Previous research indicates what we should and should not expect in the analysis at hand. First, we should not expect the self-interest theory to have much influence on black attitudes toward affirmative action. Each study to date does not find the socioeconomic and demographic variables used to explain black support to be of much value. Second, we should expect black attitudes toward affirmative action to be related to questions of race and discrimination. …
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Publication information: Article title: Testing Competing Explanations of Black Opinions on Affirmative Action. Contributors: Mangum, Maruice - Author. Journal title: Policy Studies Journal. Volume: 36. Issue: 3 Publication date: August 2008. Page number: 347+. © 1999 Policy Studies Organization. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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