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April 23, 2014 10:46 AM Public Opinion on Affirmative Action: All About the Framing

By Ed Kilgore

You can and possibly should spend a lot of time thinking through the broader judicial, political, institutional, and perhaps even psychological implications of yesterday’s Supreme Court decision involving a voter-approved Michigan constitutional amendment as it affects race-conscious college admissions policies. But strictly speaking, the majority simply held states voters or state could place bans on such policies into their constitutions without violating federal constitutional law.

While states vary significantly in the power of voters to initiate constitutional amendments, nearly all of them require voter approval of amendments, other than those adopted by a constitutional convention. So the question the Supremes dealt with yesterday ultimately comes down to public opinion on affirmative action.

At The Upshot today, Allison Kopicki looks at the variables affecting public opinion in this area:

Using the phrases “special preferences” or “preferential treatment” in a question tends to reduce support for affirmative action. Americans want life to be fair: They generally don’t mind assisting groups that need help, but they don’t like the idea of that help coming at the expense of others. A 2007 Pew Research Center survey, for instance, found that when the question included the word “help,” 60 percent of Americans favored affirmative action; in a question that used the word “preferences,” support fell by 14 percentage points.
Specifying groups that would benefit from affirmative action also tends to reduce support for the policies. When specific groups — such as women, African-Americans or gays and lesbians — were named, support for the practice of affirmative action fell significantly, for all groups but one, as a 2009 Quinnipiac University survey found. The only exception was people with handicaps. In the question that mentioned them, support for affirmative action was higher than for any other groups, and higher than on a broader question that didn’t name any group.
More broadly, opposition can sometimes get in the neighborhood of 60 percent when “preferences” is used in the phrasing for a specific group, as it was for three polls from 2003.
The bottom line is that Americans are divided on affirmative action, much as the Supreme Court is. A substantial minority — perhaps a third or 40 percent — seem to oppose affirmative action almost no matter how it’s described. A similar portion of the population supports it, regardless of the description. In the middle are a group of people who think affirmative action makes sense in some limited circumstances.

In his brilliant 1969 book Nixon Agonistes, which was ostensibly about the 37th president but dealt extensively with the ambiguities of the American liberal tradition, Garry Wills argued that most Americans thought of life (especially economic life) in terms of foot-race metaphors. But while everyone wanted a “fair” race, some focused on eliminating advantages at the starting line, while others were preoccupied with the purity of competition during the race itself. The language nuances Kopicki talks about as decisive in public opinion on affirmative action revolve around these differences of perspective. Both ways of looking at “fairness” are as American as apple pie. Neither is going away any time soon.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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