Where Do Americans Stand on Affirmative Action?


The last week or so has seen several polls on the popularity of affirmative action, as a preface (of sorts) to the Supreme Court’s anticipated ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas. But major differences between the polls make it difficult to judge where Americans stand on racial preferences

One survey from The Washington Post and ABC News, for example, found a huge, diverse majority against “allowing universities to consider applicants race as a factor in deciding which students to admit.”

Overall, 76 percent of Americans opposed race conscious admissions, while only 22 percent gave their support. This was consistent among all racial groups: 79 percent of whites opposed using race as a factor, along with 68 percent of Hispanics and 78 percent of blacks. For opponents of affirmative action, this seems to be a welcome sign that the whole of American society has turned against race-based efforts to increase diversity in higher education.

But that’s only one poll. Another survey, from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, found a less decisive public. When asked if affirmative action programs were “still needed to counteract the effects of discrimination against minorities, and are a good idea as long as there are no rigid quotas,” 45 percent of Americans agreed. On the other end, 55 percent of Americans supported the claim that “Affirmative action programs have gone too far in favoring minorities, and should be ended because they unfairly discriminate against whites.”

Here, there’s a much greater racial divide. Only 34 percent of whites agreed with the first statement, compared to 82 percent of African Americans and 68 percent of Latinos. By contrast, whites largely favored the second statement, with 56 percent affirming the view that whites are unfairly discriminated against in American life. These results are similar to an earlier poll from the Public Religion Research Institute, which finds 57 percent opposed to affirmative action in college admissions, with whites forming the bulk of opposition, and minorities broadly supportive.

Indeed, it’s worth noting an even earlier poll from PRRI—released last spring—where 56 percent of white millennials said that government paid too much attention to the problems of minorities, and 58 percent said that discrimination against whites was "as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.

All of this raises a question: What’s up with The Washington Post results? No where else do we see such wide opposition to racial preferences in college admissions.

The answer is in the wording of The Washington Post poll. The Post doesn’t ask if respondents are opposed to affirmative action—a policy which, for the most part, people understand, even if they are mistaken about its results—it asks if they support universities using “race as a factor.” That’s ambiguous. Does the Post mean affirmative action, or does it mean active discrimination against minority groups? There’s a good chance that when confronted with the question, minority respondents reached for the second meaning, not the first. And obviously, blacks and Latinos are going to oppose anything that could block their path to upward mobility.

By explicitly asking about affirmative action and not just alluding to it, PRRI and The Wall Street Journal drew answers that line up with what we know about public opinion. Despite our short historical distance from Jim Crow—and the enduring legacy of economic and social policies meant to cement white supremacy—a majority of whites oppose any effort to increase diversity in college admissions. A majority of minorities, on the other hand, do not.

The “American public” isn’t opposed to affirmative action—whites are. And while opposition is couched in terms of fairness, meritocracy, and colorblindness, there’s also an element of resistance—many whites feel that minorities are getting an unfair advantage.

That they’re getting an advantage isn’t untrue. There are almost certainly cases of white students losing admission to elite schools (and otherwise) due to racial preferences. But, if we’re serious about accounting for the past, that’s unavoidable. For most of this country’s history, all levels of government were used to advantage whites over all other racial groups, and blacks in particular. Whites were intentionally protected from competition in jobs, housing, education, and other areas of life. When you consider this, the call for complete meritocracy in college admissions is perverse—it does nothing but perpetuate existing disparities, which are large and growing.

This summer is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. As it approaches, a wide variety of public figures will affirm their commitment to King’s dream of racial equality. Make no mistake—this is progress. But it also carries a whiff of insincerity. If we were fully committed to King’s dream—if we truly aimed to fulfill his legacy—we would do far more to address the particular problems that face African Americans and other nonwhites, from mass incarceration and the war on drugs, to hyper-segregation and entrenched, generational poverty.

As a country, we invested a tremendous amount of time and energy into building a caste society of racial inequality, and we’ve taken huge strides in dismantling it. But to build a society of racial equality and opportunity takes even more time, and even more energy. Which is why I can’t help but feel dread as we wait for the Supreme Court to announce its decisions on affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act. It’s clear that a majority of the Court is willing to end the former and sharply limit the latter. And if it does, it’s another sign that, regardless of what we say, we aren’t prepared to do what it takes to secure genuine racial equality. We never have been, and likely, we never will be.