Can Americans Afford To Support It Today?
The current political sentiment, or public attitude, in regard to affirmative action has once again taken a turn towards greater disdain and negativity. Over the history of a multitude of affirmative action programs and campaigns in this country, public sentiment has fluctuated through varying levels of acceptance and rejection. While political leaders, including the president, seemingly believe the public’s opinion is strictly opposed to affirmative action programs, in fact, during different temporal periods the public has been in high support of such programs (Steeh and Krysan 1996).
The misunderstandings involved with public opinion towards affirmative action have long made the job of tracking the public’s general attitude on this topic more difficult. The findings also suggest that people’s opinion change depending on the manner in which they are asked; this problem adds to the confusion of deciphering the public’s actual opinions (Krysan 1998).
Changing opinions regarding affirmative action will be focused on in this research project looked at through the context of the fiscal climate within the nation, and its direct correlation to the approval rating of affirmative action programs. As the economy worsens the public’s support of affirmative action lessens. With the current nature of the economy, and the projected impending recession, it is primed for an even greater downturn than recorded in recent years. This study will only briefly touch on the socioeconomic positioning of its respondents, though a stratified pool will be surveyed using socioeconomic status as a consideration. To gather this data on personal opinion a mail survey will be sent, requesting information about both personal opinion in regard to specific types of programs as well as past and current economic status/condition.
The suggestion of this study is that regardless of a respondent’s base socioeconomic status, their approval rating will drop in times of economic hardship. This research perspective does not oppose other views that suggest different variables as the cause of changing public opinion, in regard to affirmative action, rather, it suggests that multiple causal factors should be considered as components of a larger structure.
II: Literature Review
Research has been done to suggest that the lower on the socioeconomic ladder a respondent finds themselves, regardless of one’s race, the more highly one’s support will be for affirmative action as a whole (Krysan et al 1994). The economic component of a person’s life and the relation to the negative effect it plays on one’s support for affirmative action must be a consideration. This theory holds particular relevance in reference the current decline in support for such programs. Wilson states that "...when national economy is in a period of little growth, or decline. Under such economic condition, the more the public programs are perceived by members of the wider society as benefiting any certain groups, the less support those programs receive (1987)." Part of the rational associated with the economic correlation is the frustration identified by Skocpol of the middle class regarding paying taxes to support programs that do nothing to improve their lot (1991). The logic of the economic hardship view speaks for itself. If there is a greater lack of employment opportunity it seems logical that individuals would be less apt to support programs which give employment preference to members of a group other than their own. This perspective is supported by the self interest theory that states that one is solely interested in proposals that will improve an aspect that is immediate to their own lives (Jacobson 1985). There have been few studies done to track the view that self interest has changed the track of public opinion but it has been supported as a viable scenario (Jacobson 1985; Kluegel and Smith 1986).
The term "affirmative action" brings with it a sense of confusion and uncertainty as to precisely what it refers to. When studying affirmative action research suggests that a researcher must either precisely define what definition they are using for affirmative action at the time or omit the words "affirmative action" all together ( Converse and Presser 1986; Seigman and Welch 1991). A number studies have reviewed the differences in the perceived negative effects of preference and quota based affirmative action programs as compared to the actual effects of these programs (Bobo and Kluegal 1993). Perception of these programs and attitudes towards support of stated programs vary by the class status and racial identity of the perceivers. The general consensuses of findings support that the perception that non-minority individuals hold, that they are being reversely discriminated against, are incorrect. In application these perceptions are grossly over representative of the actual occurrences of people experiencing "reverse discrimination," or are being passed over due to these types of preference based of quota filling programs
(Gamson 1992; Gamson and Modigliani 1987; Kinder and Sanders 1990; Kluegel and Smith 1986; Steeh and Krysan 1998). This "reverse discrimination" is said to occur when an individual of non-minority ethnic decent is not awarded a position or advancement as a result of preferential treatment being awarded to an individual who is of minority ethnic decent. There is then a misunderstanding surrounding these affirmative action programs. Somewhere between the application of the program and the way people perceive its use, there is an understanding disparity that warrants further study. While this element of the problems with gauging acceptance of affirmative action will not be discussed in this research there is a need for this to be considered in subsequent work.
A further critique often offered of affirmative action programs on a whole has been the positive impact that the programs have had on the rights and positions of "white" women, when the framework is to help minorities. While findings suggest that programs have in fact improved their positions it is a race relevant study that will be conducted. The mixture of race and gender is often difficult to extrapolate in order to ascertain meaningful results while keeping high levels of validity and reliability. This task should not be overlooked, as it is certain there is meaningful research to be down in the area, specifically when keeping in mind that research including gender issues was long ignored. It is this researcher’s view that the attitudes towards affirmative action on a whole include views that are intertwined with thoughts on gender and thus should be studied as singular and not separate issues. The initial construct of affirmative action as intending to open doors to those historically disadvantaged included both gender and ethnicity as these two personal attributes have long closed doors for individuals.
The difficulties present in understanding the public’s attitudes have long been grappled with through a variety of studies testing different aspects of how one forms an attitude towards a public policy (Bobo and Kluegel 1993; Jackman and Muha 1984; Kinder and Sanders 1996; Sears 1988; Sniderman and Piazza 1993). The ability to capture an individual’s "true" opinion (that is to say, their private opinion) has been sited as being difficult. The theory behind this difficulty is often linked with the idea that when a question has racial overtones there is a real and measurable pressure placed on individuals by society to answer with liberal ideals (Katz and Bradly 1935; Krysan et al 1994). The control that is suggested to most accurately gather valid data is to use a mailed survey to intended respondents. Though this form (mail survey) yields lower response rates than telephone polling or face to face interviews it has been found to be least biased and less likely to be influenced by social pressures related to questions involving race (Krysan 1998). The telephone interview as well as the face to face interview have a semi-public aspect to them and it is supported that whites, particularly more highly educated whites, are more positive in their public expressions than they are in their private beliefs (Bonilla-Silva 1997; Dovidio and Fazio 1992; Kackman and Muha 1984; McConhardy, Hardee, and Bates 1981). Krysan asserts that the differences in individual’s responses, depending on the polling method used should not cause a researcher to be dismissive of the different results; Rather, the results should be looked at the as equally valid depending on their situational application ( Krysan 1998; Schuman and Converse1971).
The study would best be conducted using a mail survey as the basis for the data collection. The mail survey method would be used to minimize biases brought forth through other forms of survey for the reasons discussed previously. The lack of expansive time and outside funding prevents the true pool from receiving random mailings. However I have attained permission to distribute the survey through campus mail which reaches a large pool. I approach this pool with caution as its ethnic and seriocomic diversity is not as varied as would be ideal. In addition to this mailing I am distributing the survey to many of the University’s staffers. This pool is intended to attempt to even the racial and economic classifications of respondents as these employees tend receive low to moderate wages and are predominately of minority ethnic heritage. The possible respondents will be given 10-days to reply to the mailing, as after this time allotment the return rate drops significantly. There will also be a reminder mailing dispersed for delivery 3-days prior to the 10th -day deadline.
While it has been discussed that there is a problem with using the term "affirmative action" as it is often misunderstood the specific programs will be spelled out in the survey questionnaire. The programs asked about will include preference, quota, and economic/social aid programs as tested by Steeh and Krysan (1996). Responses to these different types of programs will be weighed together and separated to increase validity of the data. The respondents will be asked to gauge their answers on a Likert scale to be later analyzed.
To study the correlation between the economy and the public’s general attitude towards affirmative action the data will be approached from two sides. The economic data will be compared on a national average broken down by area for further study. The average health of the economy as well as investment viability will be considered. As the attitudes of the public are the agreement of individuals, the average income will be compared to previous years in order to ascertain the fluctuation of the economy. It is kept in mind that many of the respondents are dependent upon parents or other family members for their financial means and as such the total income will be specified to represent this characteristic.
The approaches used to establish qualitative reliability are often less rigorous as the nature evolves as the research is conducted. The stability of the study does not hold true over time, though its theory can be applied as time passes. This study will poll the current attitudes present in the nation but the theory of linkage to fiscal climate can be retested to increase the validity.
The "population," that is the overall possible pool for administering the survey consisted of all residents and direct employees of McMahon Hall located within Fordham University. The building itself houses approximately 870 residents and employees another 100 staff. The staff was included due to the lack of racial diversity represented in the building. It is not to say that a particular individual who identifies with a given racial identity will respond in along racial lines but there is a need to have a representative number of respondents. While the population consists of all individuals who fall into the stated category, the sample is a representative measurement of this population. The sample size in this study was just over 10% of the given population at 100 respondents. Respondents represented all levels of household income represented on the survey spanning 0-over $200,000/year. The ages represented by the respondents also spanned a wide area but the data does weigh heavily towards the 18-25yr old spectrum. The actual ages ranged from 18 at the youngest respondent to 51 as the oldest.
Respondents provided not only personal background information such as income, age and employment type, but also completed number assigned responses (ranging on a 1-10 scale) on a Likert scale and a qualitative answer section asking open ended type questions. The Likert section consisted of 11 questions and the qualitative section requested responses to 4 questions.
The key aspect this study was attempting to analyze was the relationship between economics and attitude towards affirmative action programs. There were not a great number of respondents that admitted to having economic downturns over the last five years. Though the respondents that considered themselves as having a lesser economic position than in years past represented 16% of the total sample, they were separated from the pool to carefully compare the levels of approval.
While the survey sample size was small, as limited through timeframe and economic means, a 1/10th sampling is considered statistically viable. The Likert questions had clear-cut majorities in each case. Contrary to what some may believe these majorities were not opposite of the "minority" respondents viewpoints; rather the racially diverse respondents fell into the majority opinion in most cases. A general question was asked to the survey pool to numerically rank their agreement or disagreement with the following statement, "Affirmative Action was a good idea for a time but that time has passed." This question more so than any other had a single number as its clear response. The number 5, used as a neutral or undecided distinction held twice as many responses than all number on either side of the scale. The qualitative section at the end of the survey suggested that respondents chose "5" in this instance because of an uncertainty as to what a more viable option could be. One respondent stated "I don’t know how I feel about Affirmative Action. I think something should be done for people but I don’t know what that is but maybe not how they do it now." While this was a single comment it reoccurred with different wording numerous times in the completed surveys. Another interesting set of responses can be seen in relation to the statement suggesting that "minorities should be treated on a level playing field and compete with no advantages." This statement raised attention, as it was a near equal mix of agreement and disagreement. When a follow-up open-ended question was posed later in the survey respondents once again defaulted to their opinions that they were unsure of what should be done. While it would be nice to think people should be treated equally if we are not all starting from the same point to suddenly declare everyone equal does not create equality.
Overall the responses regardless of age, race, or socioeconomic bracket came in favor of affirmative action both in employment and education. While the responses were in favor of programs, the majority was not heavily slanted. Part of the correlation that can be drawn from the numerical support of affirmative action is discounted by the critiques offered in the qualitative section. It appears that while people are in favor of some sort of support system for the betterment of individuals the current system does not receive a high approval rating. When asked whom programs should benefit, race was not included by any of the respondents, instead persons of socioeconomic need, and persons with physical and/or mental disabilities were named.
The respondents that classified themselves as having downward economic trends did show lowered levels of approval ratings towards the programs. These finding were supported because they crossed both racial and socioeconomic lines, heightening both their validity and reliability. The respondents that had lowered economic status and were disapproving of the programs represented all levels of income, barring the highest, and all races represented in the sample. Given this information the original hypothesis stating that socioeconomic trend directly effect public opinions regarding affirmative action programs. Further the qualitative responses collected from this subgroup was more adamantly inclined to suggest that jobs and education should be doled out on a qualifications scale. That is to say there should be no preferences, but that the most qualified should receive the position.
VI: Social Implications
The application of public opinion regarding affirmative action has concrete and immediate effects on society on a whole. The changing, and at times discontinuity, of legal implications and Supreme Court decisions are solid examples. The decisions have in recent years handed down by the Supreme Court been outspokenly against the application of affirmative action programs except in the most necessary of instances. Even those programs that they have approved in past decisions have been overturned in the last six years. The Adarand decision in 1995 overruled the FCC v. Metro Broadcasting Inc. (1990) verdict that had allowed for preferential treatment be given to minority owned broadcasting companies. This FCC case judgment stated that it was acceptable and Constitutionally feasible for the Federal Government to allow for industry to make allowances for ethnic minorities that had been historically discriminated against in this country. The line of decisions that supported the FCC decision at the time also included a 1979 case ( Fullilove v. Klutznick) that allowed for the same sort of preferential set-aside for contracting and the construction industry. Up until the Adarand decision it was not only permissible but also encouraged, as far back as the Philadelphia Plan under Nixon, to enact such preferential programs.
The Justices that sit on the Supreme Court does not answer to sways in public sentiment but can clearly be effected by them. The change in the Supreme Court’s opinion is a reflection of interpretation and overall public sentiment regarding affirmative action. The Adarand decision is not the first judgment that has ruled against an affirmative action program but it is the controlling case in today’s legal system. Not only did Adarand overrule a number of past decisions but it also stipulated that the Federal Government and all of it’s programs that deal with preferences will be looked at with a strict sense of judicial scrutiny to avoid misapplication of these programs. The courts as far back as 1938 stated in what is now commonly known as "Footnote 4" of the United States v. Carolene Products Company that the courts must act as a watchdog for, in effect, the Caucasian majority as it can see that these programs can be unjust and discriminatory in themselves and as a result not holding with the values of the Constitution ( Skrentny 1996). Though at the time this footnote’s application was not regarded or dissected with recent shifts in opinion it has been held to light as a basis for strict scrutiny to be exercised by the courts.
Just a year after the Adarand decision a case was granted centiori with a Federal District Court that dealt with University admissions (Hopwood v. State of Texas 1996). The court decided in favor of Hopwood. The repercussions of this case deal with the preferences given to minorities in University admissions. The decision reads that, in the district covered by that decision of the court (Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi), race may no longer be used in any way in admissions.
While the Hopwood decision is a seemingly small blow to affirmative action as it is now, for the time being, as it only covers a small region when it is coupled with the Adarand decision one can see the newly forming trend. This trend redraws the focus away from affirmative action to a more "colorblind" model. This trend also coincided with a financial stagnation that has persisted for since the early-mid 1990’s supporting the economic correlation hypothesis. The financial viability of the nation in relation to affirmative action may appear coincidental but with a deeper explanation one will unearth that the phenomenon is not an anomaly but rather that is contains historical continuity
Currently there are two cases pending in front of the Supreme Court that share similarity with the Hopwood case. These both have to do with universities (Georgia and Michigan) and depending on the interpretation and the opinions handed down by the court, the way the Legislature treats preference programs may soon be entirely restructured.
Affirmative Action and all of the programs structured under its broad, though shrinking, umbrella represent deep issues in the lifeblood of this nation. The study of the differences in opinion on this topic is invaluable data to understand how the people of the nation view its functioning as well gauging how one individual may feel towards another. When affirmative action programs were initially suggested they were intended to provide a "quick-fix" and they may or may not have outlived their usefulness. Whichever may be the case documenting changes in public opinion can have far reaching application on issues of education, employment, gender and even race relations.