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What Americans Really Think About Affirmative Action

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In anticipation of the upcoming Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action in college admissions, a number of polling organizations, including PRRI, have taken the pulse of the American public on this issue. With several different approaches on hand, it's a good time to step back and review what the data tell us. Last month, PRRI unearthed a surprising divide between support for the general principle of affirmative action and its application in college admissions. We found that roughly two-thirds (68 percent) of the public supports programs that make "special efforts to help blacks and other minorities get ahead" in order to "make up for past discrimination." Simultaneously, many of these same Americans (64 percent) oppose granting preferences to blacks and other minorities in college admissions.

An ABC News/Washington Post survey released Tuesday confirmed that Americans are generally opposed to affirmative action in college admissions. In that survey, more than three-quarters (76 percent) oppose "allowing universities to consider an applicant's race as a factor in deciding which students to admit." While this finding is largely consistent with our own, the somewhat higher opposition found in the ABC/Washington Post survey is likely the result of omitting the justification for such a policy -- to make up for past inequalities. Regardless of question wording, the conclusion is the same: Americans are opposed to affirmative action in the context of college admissions.

With regard to the general principle of affirmative action, NBC News and the Wall Street Journal also released a survey on Tuesday, which at first glance appears at odds with PRRI's findings. The NBC/WSJ survey found support for affirmative action at a "historic low," with only 45 percent saying they believe "affirmative action programs are still needed to counteract the effects of discrimination against minorities." However, unlike PRRI's question, the NBC/WSJ question presents two strong arguments for and against affirmative action programs and asks respondents to choose between them. The opposition statement is particularly strong, asking respondents whether they agree that affirmative action programs "have gone too far and should be ended because they unfairly discriminate against whites."

Our own research at PRRI has shown that the idea of "reverse discrimination" is highly salient among white Americans. A majority (53 percent) of white, non-Hispanic Americans believe that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. This statement, then, would surely resonate with a considerable number of white Americans who hold this belief.

So what do Americans think about affirmative action? Most support the general principle of affirmative action when its justification -- making up for past discrimination -- is laid out explicitly. When presented with dueling statements, including an opposition statement that raises the specter of "reverse discrimination," support for affirmative action is much lower, especially among white Americans. On the specific issue currently before the court, however, question wording seems to matter less, and strong majorities of Americans say they oppose the use of race in college admissions.