Affirmative Action: Words Matter

Jun 5, 2009 12:00pm

ABC's Gary Langer reports:

Do you generally favor or oppose affirmative action programs for racial and ethnic minorities?
Let me put that another way: Do you think affirmative action programs that give preferences to blacks and other minorities in hiring, promotions and college admissions should be continued, or do you think these affirmative action programs should be abolished?

If you think that’s the same question twice, think again: They were asked in separate polls this week – and produced almost precisely opposite results. With the affirmative action debate newly enlivened by Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court, it’s worth cutting through the conflict to see what’s up with public opinion.

The Associated Press asked the first question in a poll it completed Monday. Result: 56 percent of Americans favor affirmative action, it reported, with 36 percent opposed. But Quinnipiac University asked the second question in a poll it completed the same day. Result: 55 percent of Americans oppose affirmative action, it reported, with 36 percent in favor.

The good news is that this is not so hard to pick apart. “Affirmative action” is a euphemism, chock full of positive-attribute bias and not truly descriptive of what it means. Ask it without elaboration and it sounds pretty good to plenty of people. In polling, though, measuring the appeal of euphemisms is maybe not the best way to go.

“Preferences” over others in hiring and the like, on the other hand, is a far less appealing proposition. Ask about it and you get overwhelming opposition – 80 percent, for instance, in polls we did in the late '80s and '90s.

What Quinnipiac did – an approach we ourselves have used for many years – is to split the difference, asking about “affirmative action programs” (positive bias) “that give preferences” (negative bias). This doesn’t really eliminate the bias in these phrases; it sort of averages it, which in a situation like this is about the best you can do.

More important is that there’s more to know. We asked it ourselves, this way, last September: “Do you support or oppose affirmative action programs that give preference to racial minorities in areas such as hiring, promotions and college admissions?” We got 50 opposed, 44 percent in support.

Interestingly, though, when we asked about such programs being based on income, not race, support shot up to 63 percent. And when we asked about such programs, based on race, but giving “assistance but not preference,” support hit 67 percent. (An aside: hiring, promotions and college admissions are different things, and ideally should be measured separately.

But life is short, questionnaires get long and we’ve gotten nearly identical results when measuring "hiring" and "college admissions" separately.

There are, of course, differences in views of these programs among racial groups. But either income-based preference programs, or race-based assistance programs without preferences, both earned significant majority support in our survey from whites, blacks and Hispanics alike.

The upshot: In issues like this, as in many others, words do matter – along with the substance behind them.

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