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The complex relationship between support for affirmative action for women and for racial minorities

- December 10, 2008

The American public is more favorably disposed toward affirmative action for women than for racial minorities; that’s a well established finding in the research literature. But does how one feels about affirmative action for the one group affect how one feels about affirmative action for the other? That’s the question that David Wilson (a political scientist at the University of Delaware) and his collaborators David Moore, Patrick McKay, and Derek Avery raised in a paper (gated) recently published in Public Opinion Quarterly (“Affirmative Action Programs for Women and Minorities: Expressed Support Affected by Question Order,” vol. 72 (Fall 2008), pp. 514-522).

To find out, Wilson et al. analyzed data from a nationwide telephone survey of approximately 1400 adults, including an oversample of blacks. Half of the respondents were asked about gender-based policies first and race-based policies second; the other half were asked these questions in the opposite order.

Of those who were asked about affirmative action for women first, 63% favored it. But support was lower (57%) among those who were asked that question after the one about racial minorities.

The pattern for the question about affirmative action for racial minorities was the reverse. When that question was asked first, 50% were in favor, but when it was immediately preceded by the question about affirmative action for women, support for affirmative action for racial minorities was higher (57%).

bq. These results suggest that for the American public as a whole, support for one type of AA program is indeed affected by whether that program is considered by itself or in the context of both types of AA programs. …The shift in support is found only among whites.

bq. While racial and ethnic minorities have benefited greatly from AA policies, statistically, white women have benefited more than any other group. Yet, when AA programs are debated, they commonly are framed in terms of racial preference or minority quotas. Our findings reinforce the suggestion that race is not the most favorable frame for discussing AA programs. …[T]he findings here point to the ambiguous or potentially threat-related feelings that much of the public has about race-based AA programs, and how those feelings spill over to support for gender-based AA programs as well.

Some strategic implications of these results seem pretty straightforward: If you favor affirmative action for women, you’ll undermine your chances for convincing large parts of the American public (though not African Americans) if you begin by discussing affirmative action for racial minorities. If you oppose affirmative action for women, on the other hand, you’ll do well to associate the two in people’s minds. Ditto for affirmative action for minorities. If you can bring people’s feelings about affirmative action for women to the fore, then some of them who wouldn’t have done so otherwise will extend the principle to racial minorities as well. If you keep the discussion focused on affirmative action exclusively for racial minorities, then you’ll evoke less support for the policy.