Poll Analysis: U.S. Nowhere Near Eliminating Racism, But Race-Based Affirmative Action Not the Answer

Times Poll Assoc. Director

Americans support the stand taken by the Bush Administration against a University of Michigan affirmative action program which uses race as a factor in determining student admissions, according to the latest Los Angeles Times poll. Despite the fact that a majority of Americans feel that the United States has not even come close to eliminating discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities in the America, most said that academic achievement should be used as the sole admission criterion for universities, although there was also support for economic-based affirmative action.

Affirmative action splits the country along partisan lines, but it also splits the nation along racial lines. In almost all cases, self-identified white Americans see less need for affirmative action of any kind than do other Americans, and especially African Americans. Whites are also more likely to say that the country is fairly or very close to eliminating discrimination today.

In mid January of this year, President Bush stated his opposition to the University of Michigan’s program of racial preferences for minority applicants—calling it “fundamentally flawed”—and attorneys for the administration filed a brief with the Supreme Court which argued that the University’s admissions program is unconstitutional. Fifty-five percent of Americans approved of this move at least somewhat and four in 10 said they strongly approved, including two thirds of Republicans. When you include those who approve somewhat, more Republicans approved than disapproved by seven to one.

A majority of independents also approved to some degree by a narrower margin—54% to 29%. A plurality of Democrats approved as well, but by a much narrower margin of five percentage points—44% to 39%.

Poll respondents who self-identify as non-white were split 46% to 41% in favor of the Bush Administration action, a number that includes a majority of African American respondents who were opposed. (Note: Black, Latino and Asian respondents are included in the survey, but are not of sufficient number to break out individually.)

Fifty-seven percent of Americans said they felt that a student’s academic record should be the sole criterion for university admission, compared to 33% who said that they supported the idea that some students should be admitted in an attempt to balance the student body by looking at geographic location, ethnicity, or gender as well as academic record.

The national sense that race-based affirmative action is not the answer to the problem of discrimination extends beyond university admissions, as well. More than a third said that affirmative action programs designed to help blacks and other minorities get better jobs have gone too far. A similar proportion said the programs in place now are adequate, and fewer than one in five said such programs have not gone far enough. Only one in 10 whites said the programs have not gone far enough, compared to more than a third of other Americans and a majority of African Americans who would like to see more such programs in place.

Even though affirmative action programs are often challenged in the courts on the basis of depriving non-minority students of equal protection, the nation doesn’t necessarily buy that argument. Across racial and even to some extent partisan lines, there is a sense that affirmative action programs only occasionally result in depriving someone of their rights. Fifty-two percent of whites, 63% of non-whites, and even 45% of Republicans said that happens only occasionally, or never.

Americans aren’t against all ways of compensating for background and upbringing, either. The survey found widespread support for affirmative action programs in the realm of jobs and education which would give preference to people who come from an economically disadvantaged background, regardless of their gender or ethnicity. Six in 10 overall said they favored such programs, including 48% of Republicans, 68% of Democrats, 60% of independents, 56% of whites, and 68% of non-white respondents.

How the Poll Was Conducted

The Times Poll contacted 1,385 Americans nationwide by telephone Jan. 30–Feb. 2. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation. Random-digit dialing techniques were used so that listed and unlisted numbers could be contacted. The entire sample was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age, education and region. The margin of sampling error for the entire sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points. For certain subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results can also be affected by other factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.

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