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."