From her vantage point in Wichita, Kan., Mary Wehrs finds it distinctly uncomfortable to be on the cusp of national change.
A 46-year-old who has worked in factories since her teens, she is among a generation of women who--whether they believe they have benefited personally or not--have been the biggest recipients of affirmative action largess.
She relates, with a wince that has lasted 17 years, what it is like to have the male hiring manager across the desk ignore her resume and flatly refuse to hire a woman into her chosen field.
Yet she is, she says, ambivalent about the nation's 30-year experiment to give minorities and women equal access to jobs and schooling. Part of her wants to stop affirmative action, and part of her is afraid of the consequences. Nevertheless, Wehrs has come to a conclusion.
"This is my view: It is important that this country take a big deep breath and step back and see that affirmative action, while important at one time, is not doing the job anymore," she said.
That view, with all its ambivalence and worry, encompasses a growing feeling among Americans about one of this nation's broadest and most controversial social policies.
While Americans interviewed in a Los Angeles Times Poll still say they favor the concept of affirmative action by a narrowing margin, they repudiate the most aggressive tool in the policy's arsenal--the use of racial and gender preferences. They oppose using non-academic factors to determine college enrollments, and they are split on the idea of having race-or gender-based hiring goals--stances which, taken together, virtually would gut affirmative action programs as they have come to be practiced.
Still, many exhibit deep concerns about the state of affairs for women and minorities. Overwhelmingly, Americans--and Californians interviewed in a separate poll--believe that discrimination remains common. They describe the living conditions for minorities as well below those enjoyed by whites. Their equivocations are worlds removed from the harsh denunciations of affirmative action that have come from the nation's politicians.
Yet it is undeniable that supporters of affirmative action dwell on the losing side. Californians, and Americans as a whole, believe the programs often rely on quotas-- even though that is generally illegal. Many believe that affirmative action policies have pushed unqualified people ahead of better-qualified peers and many think that those not protected by affirmative action have been wrongly deprived of their rights. The percentage of people who say they have been harmed by reverse discrimination is three times those who say they have benefited from diversity programs.
All told, the message is daunting for those seeking to defeat efforts to curb affirmative action in California and nationwide.
"The real challenge for the proponents of affirmative action is not to make the argument that there's still prejudice," said John Brennan, director of the Times Poll. "They have to make an argument that the tools they want to use are fair. That's tough."
Kim Carnahan was born halfway through the affirmative action struggle, just as proponents of equality were realizing that simply denouncing discrimination did not make it end. Now 18, Carnahan, a white student from Oceano, Calif., believes that the more aggressive interventions--like hiring goals and preferences--initiated about the time she was born were wrong.
"Right now I don't think it's needed," she says. "Before, perhaps, it was needed, especially when we were trying to integrate blacks into society. It was probably necessary then. . . . "
Now, she says: "I think that any more affirmative action, especially with quotas on specific jobs, is hurting the people. Instead of being accepted based on qualifications, they are being accepted based on gender and race. I think people ought to be accepted on merit, no matter what."
Americans and Californians seem to be moving toward Carnahan's assessment.
In September of 1991, when The Times last polled on the subject, affirmative action programs to benefit minorities were favored nationally by a broad 55%-19% margin. This month, the percentage in favor of affirmative action slipped 3 points, while the percentage opposing it climbed by 10, for a 52%-29% margin. Programs set up to help women were somewhat more popular.
That moderate movement masked a dramatic change in the feelings of white men. While they had favored affirmative action for minorities, 49%-29%, in 1991, the beliefs flipped this month, with support plummeting to 35% and opposition rising to 47%. White men were divided on the issue of affirmative action for women.
In contrast, the views of white women were slightly more negative than in 1991, and there was virtually no change among the strongest defenders of affirmative action--blacks and Latinos.
The results in California mirrored those from the nation in almost all respects. The California sample included 1,390 adults, interviewed March 4-9. The national sample interviewed 1,285 adults from March 15-19. The margin of sampling error for each poll is plus or minus 3 percentage points, with larger margins for some subgroups.
Overall, said Times poll director Brennan, "there is a drift against this, no doubt about it."
Interestingly, views on affirmative action seemed fairly constant regardless of whether the programs benefited blacks, Latinos, Asians or women--belying the arguments of some proponents that opposition stems from the increasing polarization of blacks and whites.
When asked if programs to help each of the groups had gone too far, not gone far enough, or were adequate, 29% of Americans said efforts to help blacks had gone too far, 25% said help for Latinos was excessive, 27% said Asian programs had gone too far and 22% believed efforts to help women were excessive. The numbers are remarkably similar. Likewise, 22% said programs to help blacks and Latinos had not gone far enough, and 26% said policies to help women were inadequate.
The only difference came in the case of Asians. Slightly fewer Americans were inclined to think of Asian programs as inadequate, perhaps because people rate the living conditions for Asians as substantially better than they are for blacks or Latinos.
Overall, views on affirmative action seemed to revolve not around the recipients but around the bottom-line issue of fairness.
That became abundantly clear when those polled were asked about the concept of affirmative action and then about its more controversial components of preferences, goals and quotas. The overall support for the concept evaporated as people were asked about those specific tools.
When asked whether preferences should be given to qualified minorities over qualified whites--as a way of making up for past discrimination--the answer was a resounding no. As firefighter Ted Viveiros from the Northern California town of Sunnyvale put it: "Two wrongs don't make a right."
Seventy-two percent opposed racial preferences, compared to 22% who supported them. Similarly, 70% opposed gender preferences, while 25% supported them.
Even members of minority groups were wary of preferences that would benefit them. Blacks opposed racial preferences by a 50%-43% margin and Latinos were split--44% in favor and 45% against. Similarly, women opposed gender-based preferences by a margin of 67% to 28%.
The animus about preferences extends to its more rigid cousin, quotas. Just 21% in California and the nation favor the use of quotas. Another 20% nationwide and 22% in California oppose all affirmative action. Half of both samples indicated they could support affirmative action if it did not include quotas.
They do not carry the emotional freight of quotas and preferences, but the ongoing practices of providing minority- and women-owned businesses with advantages when it comes to government hiring also provoke significant opposition.
Nationally, the federal government's requirement that businesses receiving government contracts develop goals and timetables for affirmative action hiring was supported by 47% and opposed by 44%. There was only narrow support--50% to 41%--for requiring government agencies to set aside a portion of their contracts for minorities. Set-asides for women-owned businesses provoked a more divided response, with 44% in favor and 48% opposed.
In California, where the state government seeks to give 15% of its business to minority-owned businesses and 5% to women-owned businesses, the results also were essentially split, though in a slightly different way. Set-asides for minorities were supported by 46% and opposed by 45%; and set-asides for women-owned businesses were favored by a slim 52%-42% margin.
When it comes to determining university enrollments, most people in both California and the nation favor using only academic records--and not considering factors such as race and gender, which the University of California uses in its acceptance policy.
They are poles apart in background and beliefs.
Albert Notermann is a white man, part of the group whose views on affirmative action have changed most dramatically in recent years and whose political power has caused politicians to sit up and take notice.
"I never got a boost from anybody," said the retired real estate broker, who lives in the south Riverside County community of Canyon Lake.
"I graduated from high school when I was 16 years old, in Minnesota, in the worst year of the Depression and a drought. I had a scholarship to a small college in Iowa but I didn't have the clothes or the shoes or a suitcase to put them in, so I never went. I came to California to make a fortune. So I'm sure. I believe in the American system. I believe that you can make it if you want it bad enough."
Then there is Bonnie Kirk of Detroit, a black woman of 62. She relates with fresh anguish how she used to scan the Sunday papers for jobs, put on her best clothes and be waiting outside the employment office when it opened Monday morning--only to be told that the job was filled. That, she says, is what affirmative action was meant to refute.
"Affirmative action was never intended to be what it's been made out to be--quotas and that people are being promoted or given opportunities who are less qualified than others," she said.
"Affirmative action was to be that people of equal abilities were given an equal chance. As long as we have unfair prejudice in the workplace, we need affirmative action."
Indeed, most people, even those most opposed to affirmative action, believe prejudice still is common. Poll respondents were asked how their views were best defined: "We need to continue affirmative action because discrimination is still common" or "Discrimination is still common but affirmative action has simply gone on too long" or "Affirmative action is no longer needed because discrimination has been largely eliminated."
Nationally, 46% said diversity programs should continue, 35% said they had gone on too long and a mere 13% said discrimination had been eliminated. Thus, 81%--including 72% of white men--believe that discrimination remains common.
In California, people were split over whether affirmative action should continue or had gone on too long, but 85% still characterized prejudice as common, including 78% of white men.
Answering another question, 74% of Californians said society was "not close" to eliminating discrimination, a view held by groups across the board. Nationwide, 70% shared that opinion.
As the remarks of Kirk and Notermann suggest, different racial groups held diverse beliefs on affirmative action, both in California and nationally.
Generally, minorities tend to back both race- and gender-based diversity programs. White women either back both kinds or are divided, depending on the question. And white men either are divided or opposed.
Blacks and Latinos were most supportive of hiring set-asides to benefit either minorities or women, and were least likely to believe that affirmative action results in the hiring of unqualified people or deprives others of their rights.
Blacks were far more prone than any other group to say that diversity programs had to continue. Latinos and Asians were also supportive, but less adamant.
Nationally, however, only 1 in 6 blacks and the same proportion of Latinos said they had been helped by affirmative action programs. In California, 25% of blacks, 14% of Latinos and 10% of Asians said they had benefited.
But minorities did not express universal support for the entire range of affirmative action tools. At least two of every five blacks and Latinos said they would not support affirmative action if it included quotas, and both groups divide over preferences.
In a connected response, a majority of California whites, Latinos and Asians alike favor the proposed Civil Rights Initiative, the effort to outlaw preferential treatment for any racial or gender group.
White voters were overwhelming in their support, with 71% supporting it to 21% opposing. Among Latinos, 52% supported the proposal, and among Asians, 54% supported it. Blacks were almost evenly divided, with 45% in favor and 48% against.
Among whites, men were consistently more negative about affirmative action and its consequences. By clear margins, they oppose quotas, preferences, set-asides and virtually all manner of specific tools to fight discrimination against minorities and women.
The recent dramatic change by white men has prompted interest in the issue among politicians who are sensitive to the leanings of an important, increasingly conservative voting bloc.
Not only have white men come to oppose affirmative action since 1991, they also increasingly believe that it personally wounds them. This month 28% said they have suffered from reverse discrimination, up strongly from the 18% recorded in 1991.
But they, too, were not uniform in their views. Half, in California and the nation, said they would be willing to back affirmative action if no quotas were involved, as they believe to be the case now.
White women are not as critical as white men, but the survey did show that the hopes of diversity supporters that white women will side with them are premature at best.
While they are not moving strongly against affirmative action--as white men are--they are not consistently for it. They divide on set-asides and oppose preferences. And, contradicting studies which indicate that women as a group have benefited from affirmative action more than minorities, only 6% nationally and 5% in California say they have been helped.
One of the women interviewed in the poll, factory worker Mary Wehrs of Wichita, expressed a view popular among her peers.
"I just don't feel that you should be given something on a silver platter because of race or sex or religion," she said. "And still, you shouldn't be deprived. There is still a lot of prejudice and a lot of bad feelings."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Redirecting Affirmative Action
Americans display contradictory and ambivalent feelings about affirmative action programs in hiring and education, as results from this Times national poll illustrate:
The public doubts discrimination has been ended, and supports the general concept of affirmative action for minorities or women.
Think we are close to eliminating discrimination: All: 28% White: 31% Black: 9% Latino: 30% White men: 30% White women: 33%
Don't think we are close:
All: 70% White: 67% Black: 90% Latino: 67% White men: 68% White women: 65%
Favor affirmative action programs for minorities: All: 52% White: 45% Black: 76% Latino: 77% White men: 35% White women: 54%
Oppose such programs: All: 29% White: 35% Black: 6% Latino: 11% White men: 47% White women: 23%
Favor affirmative action programs for women: All: 61% White: 56% Black: 79% Latino: 72% White men: 45% White women: 66%
Oppose such programs: All: 24% White: 29% Black: 8% Latino: 8% White men: 41% White women: 18%
But on some specifics, such as hiring goals and set-asides for federal contractors, opinion is divided.
Favor requiring federal contractors to establish numerical goals and timetables for hiring women and minorities: All: 47% White: 40% Black: 75% Latino: 65% White men: 31% White women: 48%
Oppose that policy: All: 44% White: 51% Black: 17% Latino: 26% White men: 62% White women: 41%
Favor offering a set percentage of federal contracts to qualified minority-owned businesses: All: 50% White: 42% Black: 81% Latino: 68% White men: 36% White women: 48%
Oppose that policy: All: 41% White: 48% Black: 11% Latino: 24% White men: 55% White women: 41%
Favor offering a set percentage of federal contracts to qualified women-owned businesses: All: 44% White: 38% Black: 74% Latino: 53% White men: 34% White women: 41%
Oppose that policy: All: 48% White: 55% Black: 18% Latino: 31% White men: 61% White women: 49%
In admissions to public universities, Americans want only academic credentials used.
Think acceptance to public universities should be based on academic record only: All: 55% White: 59% Black: 33% Latino: 42% White men: 62% White women: 57%
Think acceptance should also be based on an attempt to balance the student body by gender, race and geography: All: 36% White: 33% Black: 51% Latino: 42% White men: 30% White women: 36%
They reject the use of outright preferences to correct past inequities.
Think qualified minorities should receive preference over equally qualified whites: All: 22% White: 16% Black: 43% Latino: 44% White men: 12% White women: 19%
Don't think they should: All: 72% White: 78% Black: 50% Latino: 46% White men: 82% White women: 74%
Think qualified women should receive preference over equally qualified men: All: 25% White: 20% Black: 47% Latino: 48% White men: 16% White women: 23%
Don't think they should: All: 70% White: 76% Black: 48% Latino: 44% White men: 79% White women: 72%
Still, most would favor affirmative action without quotas.
Favor affirmative action that uses quotas: All: 21% White: 17% Black: 39% Latino: 35% White men: 12% White women: 21%
Favor affirmative action without quotas: All: 50% White: 52% Black: 43% Latino: 44% White men: 49% White women: 55%
Oppose affirmative action altogether: All: 20% White: 23% Black: 8% Latino: 10% White men: 32% White women: 15%
They are willing to back programs to rectify economic disadvantages.
Favor affirmative action for economically disadvantaged: All: 58% White: 54% Black: 73% Latino: 68% White men: 52% White women: 56%
Oppose that policy: All: 34% White: 39% Black: 15% Latino: 22% White men: 43% White women: 35%
Source: Los Angeles Times poll of the nation.
Note: Some numbers do not add to 100 because the "don't know" answer category is not displayed.
About This Series
In this series, The Times examines affirmative action, a policy that has left its imprint on the workplace and college campuses over the last 30 years. With some now questioning whether giving preferences to minorities has been fair to all, this series, which will appear periodically throughout 1995, will measure its impact on American institutions, ideas and attitudes.
* Previously: Why affirmative action became an issue in 1995, its legal underpinnings and its impact on presidential politics.
* Tuesday: The question of who is a minority heightens and complicates the affirmative action debate, with implications for college admissions, jobs, promotions and government contracts.
* Wednesday: Beneficiaries of affirmative action say it has transformed their lives, but for many it is an opportunity that is alloyed with fear and uncertainty.
* Today: Times Poll measures attitudes on affirmative action.
How the Poll Was Conducted
The Times Poll interviewed 1,285 adults nationwide by telephone March 15 to 19 and 1,390 adults in California March 4 to 9. Phone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation or state. Random-digit dialing techniques were used so that listed and unlisted numbers could be contacted. Interviewing was conducted in English and Spanish. Samples were weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age and education. In both surveys, minority respondents were oversampled to provide larger-sized subgroups for analysis. The margin of sampling error for the total samples in each poll is plus or minus 3 percentage points; for certain subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results can also be affected by such factors as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.