Affirmative Action: Public OPinion vs. Policy
When Justin Ketcham, a white college student from the suburbs, thinks about
affirmative action, he thinks about what happened when he sent out letters
seeking scholarships so he could attend Stanford University after being accepted
during his senior year of high school.The organizations that wrote back told him
their money was reserved for women or minorities. To Americans like Ketcham,
it’s a matter of fairness. The average white male will claim that it’s not fair
to attempt to rebalance scales by balancing them the other way.
Ketcham are also more likely to claim that affirmative action is a program
geared towards curtailing workplace prejudices that really don’t exist
anymore.But when Hillary Williams, a black insurance company manager from the
inner-city, thinks about affirmative action, she thinks about the time she had
to train three consecutive white male bosses for a job that no one even
approached her about filling. To her, it’s also a question of fairness.
African-Americans like Hillary feel that there is just no other was besides
affirmative action to level the playing field in certain businesses.And so the
disparity in public opinion begins.
A racially-divided America creates separate
groups, which “Affirmative Action issue taps a fundamental cleavage in American
Society” (Gamson and Modigliani 170)–each with their own view of affirmative
action on different sides of the line. Government attempts to create policy
based upon the voice of the people but affirmative action seems to present an
almost un-solvable dilemma.
Traditionally, it had been a policy that was
greatly scrutinized for its quotas and alleged unfairness towards Blacks, but at
the same time it had also been praised for its inherent ability to help
minorities gets jobs they deserve but could not obtain otherwise. So how do we
reach a “happy medium” so-to-speak? In American political culture, it appears
as though individualism and egalitarianism are values that find themselves on
opposite ends of the political battlefield.
In a complex world of political ideology and political culture are sets of
values and principles that are widely endorsed by politicians, educators, the
media and other opinion leaders that make up the definition of what is to be
American (Feldman and Zaller). Some favor the values of individual freedom,
especially individual economic freedom, over other values, especially equality
and popular sovereignty (egalitarianism). These people are labeled Conservatives.
The other side of the spectrum consider themselves as Liberals (Feldman and
Zaller).Because we live in a meritocracy created by the strong forces of
capitalism, there is a tendency for people to fall behind either in the economy
or in the academic community.
During the Civil Rights movement of 1960’s,
affirmative action was implemented with the idea and hope that America would
finally become truly equal. The tension of the 1960s civil rights movement had
made it very clear that the nations minority and female population was not
receiving equal social and economic opportunity. The implementation of
affirmative action was America’s first honest attempt at solving a problem it
had previously chose to ignore.
The Philadelphia Plan was one of the first major
vehicles for affirmative action named for the first city in which a labor
department agreement with federal contractors had been reached. “The plan set
specific numerical goals for each of the minority employment and the
availability pool.” Labor Department officials announced that “because of the
deplorably low rate of employment among minority groups” in the industry, they
would set up similar plans in other major cities (Gamson and Modigliani 139).
Today, without a college degree will definitely decrease the chance of upward
mobility. Public universities give preferences to minorities based on race and
gender. Many private universities, including Harvard, Chicago and Stanford,
have given preferences to the children of alumni, faculty, and athletes. This
is not to say that public universities give the same preferential treatment, but
it goes to show that public institutions use affirmative action to uplift the
non-privileged minority (Leslie 1991, 59).
And universities gives special
scholarships and fellowships to a limited amount of applicants from a particular,
regional, gender, ethnic, or religious backgrounds (Lipset 39).Conservatives
believe that people could achieve social mobility by “hard work (and ambition)
rather than lucky breaks or help from other people” (Lipset 30). From 1983
through 1990, surveys taken by NORC found that around two-thirds of respondents
consistently agreed that “people get ahead by hard work (and) a much
largerpercentage said ambition” (Lipset 30).
In October 1989, poll taken by ABC
News-Washington Post, found that 60 percent of whites and 60 percent of blacks
agreed with the statements: “if blacks would try harder, they could be just as
well off as whites.” Conservatives (whites) are overwhelmingly non-supportive to
affirmative action or preferential treatment, as seen from responses to the
following NES questions in 1988 and 1992 (Sniderman and Piazza 1993, 104):
Some people say that because of past discrimination it is sometimes necessary
for colleges and universities to reserve openings for black student. Other
oppose quotas because they say quotas give blacks advantages they haven’t earned.
What about your opinionare you for or against quotas to admit black students?
For Against Unsure
1988: 33% 58% 9%
1992: 23% 71% 6%
Some people say that because of past discrimination, blacks should be given
preference in hiring and promotion. Others say that such preference in hiring
and promotion is wrong because it discriminates against whites. What about your
opinionare you for or against preferential hiring for blacks?
For Against Unsure
1988: 19% 75% 6%
1992: 13% 84% 3%
The attitudes on affirmative action are firmly held for the white majority.
Sniderman and Piazza says that the opposition of egalitarian polices like
affirmative action lead to a negative stereotyping of minorities. Among the
randomly selected sample, one-half of them were asked about black stereotypes
they are irresponsible, they are lazy, they are arrogant. These questions were
the immediately followed by a single question about affirmative action in
The other half of the sample was asked the same question about
blacks, but they were immediately preceded by the question about affirmative
action in employment. The data show significantly higher percentages of
negative stereotypes about blacks for the sample getting the affirmative action
questions (Sniderman and Piazza 1993, 97-104). Sniderman and Piazza (1993, 109)
concluded that “affirmative action is so intensely disliked that it has led some
whites to dislike blacksan ironic example of a policy meant to put the divided
of race behind us in fact further widening it.”
Study completed by Stanley Dickinson, argued that students somewhat feel the
same way that Sniderman and Piazza stated above. He asked 759 anonymous non-
minority students’ about their thoughts of stereotyping among certain racial
groups. 8 out of 10 or 80% of the students said at one particular time they had
used negative stereotyping’ as a result from affirmative action. It goes to
show that affirmative action or preferential treatment constitutes a negative
opinion (emphasis from Sniderman and Piazza).” The same survey found 52 percent
of blacks and 56 percent of whites accepting the view that “discrimination has
unfairly held down blacks, but many of the problems blacks in this country have
(back then) brought on by blacks themselves” (Lipset 50).
According to Sears and
Kinder 1971, he argues that “symbolic racism” explains the lack of support among
whites for particular remedies to solve the problem of racial discrimination.
Whites are more likely to respond to symbolic racism (i.e. Black, Mexican, etc.)
rather than policy content of the question. Over the past few decades, straight
out racism is quite unacceptable. “Now racial hostility is expressed indirectly
by a glorification of traditional values such as work ethic’ and
individualism,’ in which blacks and other minorities groups are seen as
deficient” (Sears 1986). Sniderman and Piazza argue the rival explanation of
straightforward politics. They argue that “the central problem of racial
politics is not the problem of prejudice” (1993, 107). The agenda of the civil
rights movement has changed from one of equal opportunity to equal outcomes.
The vast majority of the American Creed view the new civil rights program of
racial quotas and affirmative action very much contrast with the principle of
equal opportunity for all (Erikson/Tedin 95).
Although the civil rights movement fabricated most of the polit…..ical culture,
progress for socio-economic equality has been inadequate, uneven and unsteady.
This fact in itself urges the public to argue for changed policies. Today,
people are listing to the individualistic’ side rather than tipsy egalitarian
side of the political spectrum. Proposition 209 was an civil rightsinitiative
that utilized conservative values of individualistic principles to get rid of
1There are only 7 counties that did not support the initiative. Women,
especially white women, have by many measures made greater gains than
minorities (Lester PG), a sore point that could complicate coalition-building
now that affirmative action is under fire.
Whatever its role in spawning a
healthy black middle class, it has barely touched black poverty or reduced an
enduring gap between white and black unemployment rates.Given this pattern, it
is hardly surprising that the much touted review of federal programs
commissioned by the President, should have included a considerable amount of
straightforward advocacy for the diversity principle. For example, that the
“competitiveness of our society and economy” depends upon building an
“inclusive” economy, and adds that in science, education, and other fields,
there will be “dangerous shortages of talent if we continue to draw the ranks of
those professions so overwhelmingly from among white males only” (Aptheker 15).
The suggestion that women and minorities offer abilities different from and in
some ways superior to those of white men is echoed elsewhere in the assertion
that diversity “is critical to the quality of certain institutions and
professions.” Throughout, society’s equilibrium is measured by the standard of
proportional representation, and any deviation from the norm is regarded as a
major social wrong.But affirmative action is, after all , a policy which has
survived at least in theme for years in the face of widespread, and often angry,
disapproval. It is also a policy whose potential constituency is quite
formidable, encompassing blacks, certain immigrants groups, and womenin other
words, over half the population. True, many women, Hispanics, and Asians are
ambivalent about or in some cases hostile to the idea of group rights, but
Americans retain a powerful attachment to the principle of affirmative action,
and many in the new black middle class have come back to look on it as an
entitlementmuch as the elderly view Medicare or farmers regard crop subsidies.
Support for affirmative action also enjoys the status of a litmus test of group
loyalty for black elected officials and civil-rights leaders.
Affirmative action is a cheap and easy way to remedy societal fall backs Over
the last few decades, public opinion about affirmative actions has changed
tantamount to public policy. The original affirmative-action initiative emerged
out of a belief that the racial neutrality enshrined in the Civil Rights Act of
1964 would not suffice to change the face of American society. According to
this reasoning, even if individual blacks were no longer being denied
opportunities, black as a whole would nevertheless, simply because the country’s
economic and educational institutions functioned in a systemically
It was in the basis of this theoryknown popularly as the
doctrine of institutional racismthat the earliest affirmative action plans
called for lowering employment standards en masse, and for coercing corporations
and government agencies into agreements which, in practice, often led to defacto
quotas (emphasis aptheker 16). According to S.M. Lipset, Americans believe
strongly in both values: individualism and egalitarianism. But affirmative
action has, since its inception, been an ever-present example of government
attempting to create a public policy that would appeal all. Some commentators
content that the move to affirmative action came because the nation, faced with
the financial demands of the Vietnam War buildup, was unable to afford the vast
sums necessary on social programs to help the poor compete their way to economic
parity (Aptheker 14). In this view, affirmative action was perceived as the
fast, cheap way to achieve social equality.
Whatever its origins, few doubt that
affirmative action has helped ope the doors of oportunity for minorities and
women over the past three decades. Their numbers have grown throughout the
workforce, including high paying professions like law and medicine. Both the
gender gap and, to a slightly lesser degree, the racial gap in median earnings
have narrowed. In this sense, a greater number of minorites have moved into
positions of power, and thus their groups have a much stronger influence upon
affirmative action itself . . .or so one might think . .
And economists agree that progress has not meant parity. Women, according to
one recent study, still earn on average 15 percent less than comarably qualified
men. Blacks actually made their greatest gains between 1940 and 1970 and fell
back relative to whates during the 1980’s (Currie 19). Both groups remain
underrepresented in high-paying executive and magerial positions. And studies
pairing black and white job applicants with similar credentials consistently
show that whites do better (Williams 75-6).On the public platform, affirmative
action is indeed an emotional, divisive and complicated issue for policy-makers.
30 years after it entered the national lexicon on the wake of the passage of the
Civil Right Act of 1964, it has emerged as one of the nation’s major topic of
disagreement and debate.
From government set-aside to workplace preferences to
race-targeted school admissions, it is under attack from opponents who want to
abolish of and from reformers who want to refocus it.Although these policies
were unpopular with white Americans from the outset, they were grudgingly
accepted by many on the grounds that blacks, who has recently been the objects
of legal discrimination, arguably deserved some limited amount of compensatory
justice. Over the years, however, the proposition that affirmative action was
necessary to combat discrimination, or even the effects of past discrimination,
became increasingly difficult to sustain. Employers met the conditions set down
by enforcement agencies; employment and educational tests were changed, and
personnel policies were adjusted to conform with guidelines established by the
EEOC; and thousands of new businesses set their hiring policies entirely
according to affirmative action principles.Faced with an increasingly shaky
rationale, the advocates of preferences began to advance a new one: diversity.
Like the original conception, diversity assumed an America in which racism (now
joined by sexism) was rampant. But diversity was designed less to fight bias in
particular instances than to create sweeping standards for the entire workforce,
if not for the entire society.
And where affirmative action had been intended,
at least theoretically, to enhanced the goal of societal integration, diversity
celebrated difference and promote “multiculturalism”i.e., segregation.
Implementing it necessitated a degree of racial and sexual consciousness
virtually limitless in its application.There are few figures in public life
today as committed to the diversity idea as President Clinton. From the musical
and literary selections at his inaugural ceremony, to his policy of setting
aside one of every three positions on the new adminstration for women and
minorities, to his having reserved to position of Attorney General for a woman,
to the scrupulous balancing of his health-care task force according to race and
gender, to the proposal advanced by that task force to impose a diversity system
on the medical profession, the Clinton administration has sent an unmistakable
message: as for as the government is concerned, America is a country that counts
by race and gender.
The adminstration’s attitude was perhaps most vividly
demonstrated ina case involving a public-school teacher in Piscataway, New
Jersey. In 1989, the local schoool board had been confronted with the need to
lay off one of two home economics teachersone white, one black, with equal
seniority and comparable performance assessments. Even though blacks were well-
represented throughout the faculty, the board dismissed the white teacher on
purely racial grounds. She then sued, and the Bush adminstration, citing
flagrant reverse discrimination, supported her action (Citrin 40-1). The
Clinton adminstration, however, abruptly reversed course and supported the
schoool board. It had to do so on grounds other than discrimination against the
black teacher, which was never an issue in this case; the grounds it came up
with were “diversity.”Nor does affirmative action lack for broad backing among
predominactly white institutions. The business community has regularly spoken
against anti-quota legislations in the past, and is distinctly unenthusiastic
about anti-preference proposals today, including CCRI (Czurak 1). Officials at
prestigous unversiies regard their racially balanced student boddies as a major