Do Americans support affirmative action? The answer, it turns out, depends heavily on how the question is asked. In this section, we summarize the issue and provide links to two particularly careful polls that have made their full survey data available, so that readers can conduct their own analyses.
In reviewing results from many public opinion polls, one can distinguish four distinct patterns:
(1) Americans are supportive of the idea of taking individual economic disadvantage into account in higher education admissions. For example, a 2016 Gallup poll found that 61% of respondents said a family’s “economic circumstances” should be a factor in college admissions. Support for considering personal hardship, low socioeconomic status, or being the first in one’s family to go to college, is widespread and particularly high among Black and Hispanic respondents.
(2) Americans also generally support “affirmative action” to increase opportunities for racial minorities. For example, a 2009 Roper poll asked a “representative” sample of U.S. adults this question: “In order to overcome past discrimination, do you favor or oppose affirmative action programs designed to help blacks get better jobs and education?” Fifty-three percent of whites said they favored such programs, compared to 37% expressing opposition. Support among nonwhite groups was lopsided: 13:1 among Blacks, and over 5:1 among Hispanics and Asian-Americans. A 2014 Pew survey found 63% of respondents agreed that “affirmative action programs designed to increase the number of black and minority students on college campuses are a good thing.”
(3) When the term “preferences” replaces “affirmative action,” respondents — particularly whites — tend to be significantly more skeptical. For example, a Quinnipiac poll from 2009 asked respondents “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?” Whites favored abolition by a margin of 64% to 27%; Blacks favored continuing such programs by a margin of 78% to 14%, and Hispanics were evenly split, with 46% favoring abolition and 45% favoring continuation.
(4) When polling questions suggest that preferences would partially displace “merit” as a basis for decisions, opposition intensifies, and nonwhites shift from support of preferences to plurality opposition or close division. For example, a 2013 Gallup poll asked: “Which comes closer to your view about evaluating students for admission into a college or university: applicants should be admitted solely on the basis of merit, even if that results in few minority students being admitted, or an applicant’s racial and ethnic background should be considered to help promote diversity on college campuses, even if that means admitting some minority students who otherwise would not be admitted.” (The two options were given in reverse order in half the interviews.) Whites favored “merit only” by 75% to 22%; Blacks favored consideration of race, but only by 48-44%, and Hispanics favored “merit only” by 59% to 31%. A 2019 Pew poll asked a national sample whether they felt each of a series of considerations in college admissions should be a “major factor,” a “minor factor,” or “not a factor.” Among whites, only 4% said race should be a major factor, and only 79% thought it should not play any role at all. Sixty percent of Black respondents, and 64% of Hispanic respondents similarly said race should not be a factor in admissions decisions.
The electoral history of ballot measures that prohibit racial preferences in government programs is generally consistent with these patterns. Prop. 209 in California, Prop. 200 in Washington, and Prop. 6 in Michigan all had ballot wordings similar to those in example (3) above, and all passed with between 54% and 58% voter support. [Counterexample of Colorado, with different wording.]
In November 2020, California voters were invited by the State Legislature to repeal Prop. 209. The key ballot language reported that Prop. 16 “allows diversity as a factor in public employment, education, and contracting decisions.” This compromise avoided the term “racial preferences,” but also implied that public decisions would not be based strictly on merit. California voters rejected the measure by a nearly 58% to 42% margin, with a small plurality of Hispanics and about one-third of Black voters in opposition.
Of the polls we have discussed, the 2009 Roper poll and the 2019 Pew poll are among the best in the thoughtful framing of questions. The 2009 Roper poll divided respondents into two halves, and asked each half a different “affirmative action” question aimed at distinguishing “Category 2” above from “Category 3.” The 2019 Pew poll, as noted earlier, asked respondents whether eight different characteristics, including race, gender, family background, test scores, and grades, should be a “major factor,” “minor factor,” or “not a factor” in college admissions. Both of these polls have made public their raw data and actual questionnaires, which we post below.
Scott Jaschik. Poll: Public Opposes Affirmative Action. 2016: Inside Higher Education.
Quinnipiac University Poll. “U.S. Voters Disagree 3-1 With Sotomayor on Key Case, Quinnipiac University National Poll Finds; Most Say Abolish Affirmative Action.”