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The Pulse

Splits and chasms on affirmative action

Cedrid Herring

By CEDRIC HERRING

A common analogy used to illustrate the principle of affirmative action is that of a long distance relay race: Initially, both teams are equal in every respect except that one has runners who have to carry 100-pound weights as they run. As the race progresses and the unencumbered runners woefully outdistance the others, it is finally acknowledged that the unburdened team has an unfair advantage. The logic of affirmative action suggests that letting the disadvantaged runners discard their weights so that they might attempt to catch up with their competitors would not be enough. Rather, it suggests that the fairer race would allow the disadvantaged runners time to recuperate and an opportunity to catch up with the front-runners, even if at this point it means altering the rules of the contest in favor of the team that was initially disadvantaged.

Unfortunately for proponents of affirmative action, most Illinoisans believe that it is enough just to cast off the weights. An October 1990 statewide, random-digit-dialing telephone survey of 1,015 Illinois adults, with a margin of error of less than 3 percent, shows that there are major splits, in levels of support for affirmative action policies. The survey was co-sponsored by the University of Illinois' Institute of Government and Public Affairs and the University of Illinois at Chicago's Department of Political Science, its Office of Social Science Research and its Public Policy Analysis Program.

Results from the survey show that there is a chasm between the views of African Americans and whites concerning the merits of affirmative action programs. Most whites see altering the rules as tantamount to letting disadvantaged groups win unfairly. And as the competition for education and jobs that secure middle-class status becomes stiffer, equal opportunity (affirmative action) programs find little

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support even among those whites who concede the persistence of discrimination.

Affirmative action consists of activities undertaken specifically to identify, recruit, promote and/or retain qualified members of disadvantaged minority groups in order to overcome the results of past discriminatory practices. It recognizes that simply removing existing impediments is not sufficient for changing the relative positions of minority groups. And it is based on the premise that to be truly effective in altering the unequal distribution of life chances, it is essential that employers take specific steps to remedy the effects of discrimination.

When the economy is expanding and good jobs are plentiful, the argument is often made that a rising tide lifts all boats and that the smallest boats will rise the most. Nevertheless, research continues to document that without "catch-up" measures, minorities, even in the best of economic times, will continue to trail their white counterparts for several generations. Such forecasts become even gloomier when one considers the effects of economic recessions and downturns in the economy.

The evidence that African Americans and Hispanic Americans still occupy disadvantaged economic positions in Illinois is abundant. In addition, according to our survey data, nearly three out of four Illinoisans (74 percent) believe that discrimination against minorities is still a problem in this country. Nevertheless, about 60 percent of the citizens of Illinois reject the idea that "because of past discrimination, minorities should be given special consideration when decisions are made about hiring applicants for jobs."

When we look at levels of support for affirmative action programs, we find vast differences among various sociodemographic groups. The gap is greatest when the groups are divided according to race. But there are also differences based on gender and location. Women are slightly more supportive of affirmative action programs than are men, and city dwellers are more supportive than those from smaller towns and suburbs (see figure).

The survey also demonstrates that levels of support for affirmative action vary by income, education, party identification and whether a person planned to vote for Jim Edgar for governor. The results indicate that as income increases, support for affirmative action decreases. However, when respondents are grouped according to education, the result is a U-shaped curve: People with a high school diploma or less and those with at least some graduate school education are more likely to show support for affirmative action than those in the middle with some college but no graduate school training.

In terms of party, about twice the proportion of those who think of themselves as Democrats support affirmative action compared with those who identify themselves as Republicans. Indeed, party is second only to race in revealing division among Illinoisans on this issue. But, those who said that they planned to vote for Jim Edgar for governor fall between these two extremes (see figure).

What do these data mean? More importantly, what are their implications for policymakers and others concerned with the state of equal opportunity and equalization of life chances in Illinois? At a minimum, they suggest that race and ethnicity continue to polarize the citizens of Illinois. Of all the groups examined, African Americans are the most likely to be supportive of affirmative action, and whites

When we look at levels of support for affirmative action programs, we find vast differences among various sociodemographic groups

are the least likely to be supportive. Hispanics fall between these groups, but their views on the question appear to be much closer to those of African Americans. Politicians trying not to alienate voters of any race will seek to avoid this issue.

These results also reveal that policy-makers concerned with reducing levels of racial and ethnic inequality in the state face formidable challenges. If they try to use affirmative action programs to alter the relative positions of minority groups, they will encounter stiff opposition from white voters, even from those who acknowledge the continued existence of discrimination against minorities.

Indeed, it has become so fashionable to attack "quotas" that Louisiana state legislator David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, argues that "the time has come for equal rights for everyone in this country, even for white people." Further, when he introduced a bill in the Louisiana legislature to outlaw set-aside programs (that is, plans assuring access to educational institutions, jobs and government contracts for at least some minority aspirants), it passed easily.

Despite the recent decision (and its subsequent reversal) by the Bush Administration that scholarships and financial aid to students cannot be awarded with regard to race, we probably will not see attempts to eliminate special admissions and set-aside programs, nor will we witness efforts to do away with hiring goals and timetables in the state of Illinois. But we will not see many efforts to promote and expand such programs either. Instead, we will probably witness more job training strategies and programs to expand the economy from which all supposedly benefit.

Policies aimed at economic expansion and development and those that propose more job training are far more politically popular than programs that involve direct government intervention in the hiring and promoting practices of employers. Economic development and job training do not, however, provide real solutions. Job training, for instance, is of limited use when there is a growing scarcity of jobs. And in the face of an economic downturn, these policies will do little to prevent minorities from being the "last hired and the first fired" or to guarantee that African Americans and Hispanics will make progress.

If public leaders are sincere in their concerns about helping African Americans and Hispanics realize equal opportunity, they will need the courage to push for a strategy that is politically unpopular among whites. They will need to do so because affirmative action stands the best chance of improving the lot of minorities in a shrinking economy.

Cedric Herring is an associate professor at the University of Illinois' Institute of Government and Public Affairs and in the Department of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He conducts research on labor force issues, politics and social inequality. He is the author of Splitting the Middle: Political Alienation, Acquiescence, and Activism Among America's Middle Layers.

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