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Interpreting Public Opinion Polls on Racial Preferences and Affirmative Action:

Some caution is in order in interpreting the recent Quinnipiac University survey results on the Supreme Court's recent decision restricting the use of race in assigning students to public schools. As Orin notes in his post, Quinnipiac asked respondents whether they approved of the Supreme Court's recent decision "that public schools may not consider an individual's race when deciding which students are assigned to specific schools." A massive 71% majority said that they "agree" with the Court's decision.

However, the true level of public opposition to affirmative action preferences in education is likely much lower than this. Public opinion scholars have known for years that most survey respondents will express hostility to anything described as a "racial preference" or as racial discrimination. This is particularly true if the question at issue - like Quinnipiac's - fails to distinguish between affirmative action and traditional racial discrimination against minorities. Many of the Quinnipiac respondents probably assumed that the Supreme Court forbade old-style racial discrimination against minorities.

By contrast, a recent ABC/Washington Post poll that described the decision as "restrict[ing] how local school boards can use race to assign children to schools" and noted that "Some argue this is a significant setback for efforts to diversify public schools, others say race should not be used in school assignments." It found that 56% "disapproved" of the decision, while only 40% said they approved. A July Newsweek poll (hat tip: VC commenter Tim Dowling) described the decision as "limit[ing] the use of race for school integration plans," and found that 32% of respondents supported the decision, while 36% opposed it (a statistical tie).

The ABC/Washington Post and Newsweek questions have their own flaws (e.g. - "restricting how local school boards can use race" is very vague, and "integration plans" introduces a term - "integration" - with positive associations). But the contrast between their results and Quinnipiac's is nonetheless striking.

More generally, strong majorities favor programs described as "affirmative action." For example, this 2003 Pew survey found that 57% of Americans support "affirmative action programs that give special preferences to qualified blacks, women, and other minorities, in hiring and education," while only 35% oppose them. Note that a large majority - at least in this survey - supported "affirmative action" even in a question that defined AA as giving "special preferences" to women and minorities (albeit perhaps only to "qualified" ones). The same survey found that 60% said that "affirmative action programs designed to increase the number of black and minority students on college campuses" are a "good thing," while only 30% said that they were "bad." Similarly, this 2005 USA Today poll found that 49% of American support "affirmative action programs for racial minorities," with only 43% opposed. As a general rule, the majority of the public will express support for a program defined as "affirmative action" for minorities or women, but will oppose anything described as a "preference" or as "discrimination."

While political elites and others in the know use terms such as "racial preference" and "affirmative action" interchangably and have clear, stable views on the issue, much of general public has far less clear opinions and fails to understand the connections between them. Some of this is due to a genuine desire many people have to support "affirmative action" while at the same time rejecting racial "preferences." Some is probably due to widespread rational political ignorance, which results in many people not understanding the implications of common political terms. Whatever the cause, we must be very cautious in interpreting polls on affirmative action and racial preferences. Small differences in wording can have a big impact on results.

UPDATE: While it is not directly relevant to the subject of this post, it's also worth noting that the Quinnipiac question described the Court's decision incorrectly. The Court emphatically did not hold that the government "may not consider an individual's race when deciding which students are assigned to specific schools." Instead, Justice Anthony Kennedy's controlling opinion in the close 5-4 decision clearly indicated that some uses of race are in fact permissible, just not the very flagrant ones at issue in these particular cases. Kennedy emphasized his disagreement with Chief Justice Roberts' "all-too-unyielding insistence that race cannot be a factor in instances when, in my view, it may be taken into account."

Libertarian1 (mail):
We are talking here about polls. But in California, Washington and Michigan there were actual referenda on the use of race. The wording of these was very carefully chosen but the results were the same across three "blue" states. I think all 3 supported Kerry. The people overwhelmingly opposed the use of race by government in selecting successful applicants for a variety of positions. If similar referenda were put on the ballot in "red" states I think the results would be even more lopsided.

Those opposed to the referenda far outspent the proponents and the media overwhelmingly opposed them. It would be difficult to try and explain the results away by saying the people didn't know what they were voting on.
8.16.2007 8:39pm
John Rosenberg (mail) (www):
I think Ilya is certainly correct in noting that in most polls, most of the time, respondents support "affirmative action" but oppose preferential treatment based on race. Two additional points, however, should be added: 1) At the actual polls, as opposed to opinion surveys, voters in three liberal states have soundly rejected all governmental affirmative action programs that employ racial preferences; and 2) Affirmative action programs that do not employ preferential treatment based on race are rare and are opposed by hardly anyone, and thus polling that finds support for "affirmative action" is highly misleading because virtually all of the programs about which there is debate embody race preferences.
8.16.2007 8:45pm
guest (mail):
I thought it was well settled that people tell pollster that they support AA far more than they do when they vote privately at the polls. For example, the MCRI was not leading in the polls right before the election then won handily. Similar phenomena happen every time AA is put to a popular vote. The theory, as I understood it, is that most Americans oppose affirmative action but are reluctant to be called racists for their views. I'm not arguing for or against here, I'm just reporting what I thought was the conventional wisdom.
8.16.2007 8:45pm
George Weiss (mail):
kudos for this point ilya..took the words out of my mouth
8.16.2007 8:52pm
Ilya Somin:
We are talking here about polls. But in California, Washington and Michigan there were actual referenda on the use of race.

This is certainly true, and for what it's worth, I support much of what those referenda did. However, all three were worded as banning "preferences." Had they used wording that favored the opposite side, they would likely have gotten different results, as indeed happened in a 1997 referendum in generally conservative Houston.
8.16.2007 8:57pm
CheckEnclosed (mail):
This helps explain why those opposed to referenda seeking to bar preferences are alwsays trying to change the referendum language for the purpose of making them easier to defeat.
8.16.2007 9:12pm
Nessuno:

However, all three were worded as banning "preferences." Had they used wording that favored the opposite side, they would likely have gotten different results, as indeed happened in a 1997 referendum in generally conservative Houston.


Well, legally speaking, what might the wording be for a referendum that would "favor the opposite [pro-AA] side" and still be legally enforceable? What I'm getting at is if you write a proposition to end AA that says "the state shall end all AA programs" then it is so vague it can't be enforced. You have to define affirmitive action, and how else to describe it except as "racial preferences"?

I think Ilya's polling disctinction is just a lesson in the power of words and public relations rather than a difference in substance. The marketing basically worked when they re-labeled the prune as the "dried plum". It's the same thing, but when you change the name you change the negative connotations. (Indeed, the current move by left-of-centers describing themselves as Progressive and shedding the "liberal" baggage is another similar effort.)
8.16.2007 9:16pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
Another variable here is that the Pew survey cited refers to "special preferences for qualified blacks, women, and other minorities" (emphasis mine). Some people accept minority preferences where candidates are truly equally qualified or even where the difference in qualifications is small, but object to programs that give preference to minorities considered poorly qualified.
8.16.2007 9:20pm
Wintermute (mail) (www):
Screw affirmative action racism.
8.16.2007 9:26pm
Brian K (mail):
This helps explain why those opposed to referenda seeking to bar preferences are alwsays trying to change the referendum language for the purpose of making them easier to defeat.

It also explains why proponents of these referenda always choose specific language and vigorously fight changes to the language to make it easier to win. You can't blame one side for something both sides do.
8.16.2007 10:13pm
Brian K (mail):
Indeed, the current move by left-of-centers describing themselves as Progressive and shedding the "liberal" baggage is another similar effort.

It also explains why conservatives have been working so hard to tar the word liberal.
8.16.2007 10:16pm
John Rosenberg (mail) (www):
It also explains why proponents of these referenda always choose specific language and vigorously fight changes to the language to make it easier to win. You can't blame one side for something both sides do.

Maybe you can't, but I can. Referendum/initiative/ballot language that would ban "affirmative action" obfuscates. Language that would ban "preferential treatment" accurately describes.

Note that the language certified by the Michigan Secretary of State that went on the ballot was quite clear on this point:

A PROPOSAL TO AMEND THE STATE CONSTITUTION TO BAN AFFIRMATIVE ACTION PROGRAMS THAT GIVE PREFERENTIAL TREATMENT TO GROUPS OR INDIVIDUALS BASED ON THEIR RACE, GENDER, COLOR, ETHNICITY OR NATIONAL ORIGIN FOR PUBLIC EMPLOYMENT, EDUCATION OR CONTRACTING PURPOSES
Supporters of racial preference will go to great lengths in attempting to prevent ballot language from accurately describing what would be proscribed. By contrast, opponents of race preferences have no objection to language indicating that any "affirmative action" programs that do not rely on race/ethnic/gender preferences would not be affected.
8.16.2007 11:11pm
Brian K (mail):
Maybe you can't, but I can.

Nope. You still can't. The Michicagan secretary of state is a conservative republican...hardly a nonbiased person and most definitely someone likely to choose language specifically designed to ensure her desired outcome. The website you link to his a political campaign site advocating one side of the argument...this is about the most biased source of information you could have chosen.

This sentence here proves my point (taken from the same website):
We believe that the exact language of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative -- the language that appeared on the MCRI petitions and what will be inserted into the Constitution once the Initiative passes -- would have been the most straightforward language to put on the ballot and we urged the Secretary of State to use that language.(emphasis mine)

You can argue that "preferential treatment" is more exact than "affirmative action" (which you have not done...you have merely asserted it...an assertion i do not agree with). But you cannot argue that BOTH sides have attempted to use language in their favor.
8.16.2007 11:48pm
John Rosenberg (mail) (www):
Nope. You still can't. The Michicagan secretary of state is a conservative republican...hardly a nonbiased person and most definitely someone likely to choose language specifically designed to ensure her desired outcome.

First, the Michigan Secretary of State is a he, not a she, but leave that aside. What is "biased" about language that that would bar "affirmative action programs that give preferential treatment...."

I'm not sure what the difference is between arguing and asserting in short blog comment (I suppose if you want to see extended argument you should visit my blog), but why don't you tell us how and why you believe "affirmative action" is more "exact" than "preferential treatment." Perhaps you could describe some affirmative action progams barred in Michigan or California or Washington that did not employ racial preference.
8.16.2007 11:57pm
Brian K (mail):
First, the Michigan Secretary of State is a he, not a she
not according to michigan's own website. she has been the sos since 2003.

What is "biased" about language that that would bar "affirmative action programs that give preferential treatment...."
I made no comment about the language...only about he person choosing the language. But given the differences in polling i can say that the two terms do not have equal connotation. why is it biased? i don't know...you might want to ask someone whose answer will change depending on which term is used.

why don't you tell us how and why you believe "affirmative action" is more "exact" than "preferential treatment."
You're 0 for 2. that's the second time you've misquoted me. i never said the former is more exact than the latter. i see them as equivalent with the exception of what emotions they evoke in people.

Perhaps you could describe some affirmative action progams barred in Michigan or California or Washington that did not employ racial preference.
This statement backs up my original (implicit) assertion. thank you for proving my point! The only reason to choose one term over the other is that one is likely to skew the electorate towards your side while the other will skew the electorate away from your side.
8.17.2007 12:33am
Brian K (mail):
Whoops:
"I made no comment about the language...only about he person choosing the language."

Should read:
"my comment was concerning the person choosing/advocating the language not the language itself"
8.17.2007 12:38am
nunzio:
Another suggested question:

Do you support affirmative action programs that give a special preference in hiring and education to qualified blacks, girls/women, and other minorities over qualified white and asian boys/men regardless of socio-economic background?



special preferences to qualified blacks, women, and other minorities, in hiring and education,"
8.17.2007 12:54am
John Rosenberg (mail) (www):
I was wrong about the Michigan SOS. I was thinking of the AG, but that's no excuse.

As for misquoting you, perhaps that's my mistake as well. When you wrote that you "do not agree with" my assertion "that 'preferential treatment' is more exact than "affirmative action," I concluded, apparently mistakenly, that, well, you didn't agree with it.

But while we're on mischaracterizing, if not misquoting, I have never disagreed that fewer people will support initiatives banning only "affirmative action" than will support initiatives banning "affirmative action that give preferential treatment" based on race, etc. My point is only that the latter language accurately describes what would be banned (and what most people oppose) while the former obfuscates the issue. You seem to regard obfuscatory language and language that accurately and specifically describes what is at issue as equally worthy.

Finally, it is worth noting that the civil rights initiative in Michigan, as in other states, was proposed by citizens who had an identifiable objective, to ban state action that awarded preferential treatment based on race, ethnicity, or gender. They did not -- and they were quite explicit about this (again, check my web site for more "argument" with evidence on this point) and about not wanting to ban any affirmative action programs that did not not employ preferential treatment. Indeed, they often mentioned specific affirmative action programs that would not be affected by the proposed (and now actual) ban. This alone proves that "affirmative action" and "preferential treatment" are not, as you assert (or argue?), "equivalent with the exception of what emotions they evoke."
8.17.2007 2:02am
Brian K (mail):
again, check my web site for more "argument" with evidence on this point)
link? after a brief skim of your website i did not notice the article you are referring to.
nevermind. i found it by accident through google.

My point is only that the latter language accurately describes what would be banned (and what most people oppose) while the former obfuscates the issue. You seem to regard obfuscatory language and language that accurately and specifically describes what is at issue as equally worthy.
Exactly what definition of affirmative action are you using? Nearly all definitions define it as giving preference to some group. As such the phrases "affirmative action based on race" and "preferential treatment based on race" or any combination of the two have equivalent meanings. From the above stated article it seems you are redefining affirmative action on your as any way to differentiate between two people, e.g. merit. in all my years of reading stuff i have never ever heard of anyone say that hiring some with a higher GPA is an affirmative action program. Please correct me if i'm wrong...because if i'm not your definition is absurd.

I have never disagreed that fewer people will support initiatives banning only "affirmative action" than will support initiatives banning "affirmative action that give preferential treatment" based on race, etc. My point is only that the latter language accurately describes what would be banned (and what most people oppose) while the former obfuscates the issue.
I feel the need to point out that the added accuracy between your two examples (and the michigan referendum quote you posted above) comes about not by addition of the words "preferential treatment" but by addition of the words "based on race, etc." Elaboration of what specific types of affirmative action/preferential treatment are banned (e.g. race, ethnicity...) also solves your merit problem. The additional of the words "preferential treatment" or replacing "AA" with "PT" does not add any extra clarity...it only affects the voters emotions.

In addition, your desire to replace "AA" with "PT" because it is more exact is also a poor argument. There are many other phrases that are more exact than "AA". For example, how about we phrase it this way "this statute will ban the government from enacting programs designed to help those harmed by their race, ethnicity, etc." It is more accurate than "AA" or "PT" alone, however i'm willing to bet my own money that this phrasing will elicit a very different response that your choice of wording.

The only reason i've seen so far for favoring preferential treatment over affirmative action is that the former illicits a much stronger negative reaction in the voters. (AA suffers the same problem but in the opposite direction.)
8.17.2007 3:38am
eddy:
Brian K --

I believe the original use of the term "affirmative action" arose in presidential executive orders from both Kennedy and then Johnson directing that federal agencies and federal contractors take affirmitive steps to ensure that they did not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, etc. This required "affirmative action" rather than passive notice of the prohibition. It was all prohibition without a hint of racial preferences.

Today, the meaning of "affirmative action" has morphed or been spun into expressing preferential treatment rather than its original meaning of expunging potentially discriminatory procedures.

Until there is a replacement term for taking affirmative steps to ensure non-discrimination, "affirmative action" seems the proper term. I believe the term "racial/gender preferences" is appropriate when bonus points are granted by race or gender.
8.17.2007 4:36am
Seerak (mail):
All that we're seeing here is how much power lies in the control and use of ideas and of euphemisms, to corrupt and misdirect debate.

"Affirmative action" is a euphemism, a verbal construction specifically designed by the Left to permit for themselves what they purport to fight in others: racial discrimination.

Most Americans hear a steady rain of uses of the words "affirmative action" in the media, all of which connote something anti-racist, and that's what they go on. So it's no wonder the poll results vary in this manner.

But point out the actual facts involved, as "racial preferences" does, and the results change -- closer to the truth.

I'd like to see what happens to those numbers when the plainly descriptive term "racial discrimination" is used. (Even the older "reverse discrimination" was better; it left the core fact in the open.)

It's time to start resisting the Left epistemologically when they concoct these things.
To make choices based on or influenced by race, is to discriminate (or "prefer"), racially.

Period.
8.17.2007 4:44am
John Rosenberg (mail) (www):
Exactly what definition of affirmative action are you using? Nearly all definitions define it as giving preference to some group. As such the phrases "affirmative action based on race" and "preferential treatment based on race" or any combination of the two have equivalent meanings.

Again, this is simply not true. Have you never heard of affirmative action based on economic need? Have you never heard of college admissions officers actively recruiting at high schools whose graduates are "underrepresented" at their institution? Those who support racial preferences prefer that measures that would ban them use the vague and ambiguous term "affirmative action" instead so that they can then point with alarm to all the worthwhile programs that do not give preferences based on race that would be banned.

Nor is it true that all definitions of "affirmative action" include reference to race preferences. In addition to the affirmative action programs mentioned above, and other similar ones that award no preferential treatment based on race, note the definition of affirmative action contained in identical language in the two presidential executive orders (mentioned by Eddy) that instituted affirmative action by the federal government:

Executive Order 10925 (President Kennedy, March 6, 1961)
WHEREAS discrimination because of race, creed, color, or national origin is contrary to the Constitutional principles and policies of the United States; and 13 CFR 1960 Supp.

WHEREAS it is the plain and positive obligation of the United States Government to promote and ensure equal opportunity for all qualified persons, without regard to race, creed, color, or national origin, employed or seeking employment with the Federal Government and on government contracts....

The contractor will not discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, creed, color, or national origin. The contractor will take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin. (Emphasis added)

Executive Order 11246 (President Johnson, Sept. 28, 1965)
.... The contractor will not discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, creed, color, or national origin. The contractor will take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.(Emphasis added)

In short, the term "preferential treatment" that is used and advocated by its opponents has the twin virtues of being both honest and accurate, virtues lacking in the attempt to obfuscate by substituting "affirmative action."
8.17.2007 10:49am
Brian K (mail):
Have you never heard of affirmative action based on economic need?
Sure I have...and it would not be affected. Look at the bold parts of your own post. do you see economic need anywhere in that last? I didn't think so.

Have you never heard of college admissions officers actively recruiting at high schools whose graduates are "underrepresented" at their institution?
This is called outreach. go to ucla's outreach website for a good description of what it is. it is not AA/PT based on race because 1) it attempts to get more people to apply to the school and 2) any AA/PT used is based on school NOT on race, etc

Those who support racial preferences prefer that measures that would ban them use the vague and ambiguous term "affirmative action" instead so that they can then point with alarm to all the worthwhile programs that do not give preferences based on race that would be banned.
Those who are against racial preferences/affirmative action try to use politically/emotionally loaded terminology that helps to ensure their victory.

Nor is it true that all definitions of "affirmative action" include reference to race preferences.
nor is it true that all preferential treatment is given only on account of race. hence the words "without regard to race, creed, color, or national origin" (emphasis mine) in the executive order and similar language in the referendum quoted above.

two presidential executive orders
so then the term affirmative action is not too vague a term to use when creating laws. so much for your argument.

In short, the term "preferential treatment" that is used and advocated by its opponents has the twin virtues of being both honest and accurate, virtues lacking in the attempt to obfuscate by substituting "affirmative action."
Something doesn't become true just because you keep saying it.

I find it interesting how you manage to think that the side opposite of you has all kinds of ulterior motives and "obfuscates" till the cows come home, and yet the side that you are on has nothing but good intentions and only wants honesty. HAHAHAHA...i find it very funny.
8.17.2007 2:12pm
The General:
Discrimination is discrimination is discrimination. The state has no business classifying people by race to hand out goodies to their favored constituents who haven's suffered any discrimination in the first place (these children weren't slaves, nor did they live under state sanctioned Jim Crow.)

Then again, I guess some people are more equal than others.
8.17.2007 5:26pm
The General:
Wasn't Jim Crow an extreme version of affirmative action for southern whites? It existed to benefit whites, and those whites went nuts when the Feds tried and succeeded in taking it away, just like the current benefactors of so-called affirmative action that discriminates against whites (and others depending on the details) are going apoplectic when people like Ward Connerly try to take their racist goodies away.
8.17.2007 5:31pm
Smokey:
Are people still arguing in favor of Affirmative Racism?
8.17.2007 6:40pm