White Opposition to Affirmative Action

February 15, 2000

White Opposition to Affirmative Action

ANN ARBOR—Racial prejudice, not conservatism, is the major factor underlying white opposition to Affirmative Action, according to a study published in the current issue of the journal Social Problems.

The study was conducted by David R. Williams and James S. Jackson at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (ISR), the world’s largest academic survey and research organization. It is based on data from a 1995 survey of a representative sample of 1,139 adult residents of Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne counties, including metropolitan Detroit.

For the study, researchers explored the relationship between white support for government intervention to improve the position of Blacks, in general, and for Affirmative Action, in particular, and a wide range of factors including economic status, social and political beliefs, and various measures of racial prejudice.

Overall, they found a high level of support, with about 48 percent of Detroit-area whites saying they did not mind giving Blacks special preferences and about 50 percent agreeing that the government should improve Blacks’ position.

“The racial attitudes of Detroit-area whites are generally similar to that of whites in other large cities,” says Williams, a professor of sociology and senior research scientist at the ISR. “But Detroit-area whites show much higher support for Affirmative Action than whites do nationally.” In age and gender, the Detroit sample is similar to the general U.S. white population, except for higher levels of education and income.

But the study also found that racial prejudice, especially the subtle, contemporary kind, plays a dominant role in explaining white support for Affirmative Action. Whites who said they seldom felt any sympathy or admiration for Blacks were more likely to oppose Affirmative Action than whites of similar economic and social views who reported sometimes feeling these positive emotions. Likewise, whites who subscribed to statements reflecting a less blatant, more contemporary brand of racial prejudice—agreeing, for example, that Blacks should work their way up, that Blacks blame whites too much for their problems, and that Blacks have gotten more than they deserve—were also more likely to oppose Affirmative Action.

Paradoxically, the researchers found that whites who admitted to some forms of traditional racial prejudice, such as believing that some groups are dominant over others and that their own race was inherently superior, tended to support government help for Blacks and favor Affirmative Action. Also more likely to support Affirmative Action were whites who adhered to basic American values of equal opportunity.

“These findings initially appear to be counter-intuitive,” says Williams. “They are also inconsistent with the claim that a commitment to core American values of individualism is what underlies white opposition to efforts to improve the status of Blacks. We are hoping to conduct more research to understand why this is the case.”

In the meantime, the main findings of the present study are clear: racial prejudice, especially the subtle, contemporary kind, is the most important reason for opposition to Affirmative Action and other government programs that help Blacks.

“This research considered a broad range of alternative explanations,” says Jackson, the Daniel Katz Distinguished University Professor of Psychology, director of the U-M Center for Afroamerican and African Studies, and director of the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the ISR. “The findings are important because of the growing evidence that the gap in economic status between Blacks and whites is still wide and shows few signs of narrowing.”

Also collaborating on the research were U-M researchers Tony Brown, Myriam Torres and Tyrone Forman and Macalester College researcher Kendrick Brown.

Table of findings from this report

Established in 1948, the Institute for Social Research (ISR) is among the world’s oldest survey research organizations, and a world leader in the development and application of social science methodology. ISR conducts some of the most widely-cited studies in the nation, including the Survey of Consumer Attitudes, the National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the Institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China, and South Africa. Visit the ISR Web site at www.isr.umich.edu for more information.

The study is part of the Detroit Area Study, established in 1951 at the U-M. Each year, graduate students conduct a survey in the community, under the direction of a faculty mentor. Previous topics include health and aging and life-and-death decisions: limiting life-saving treatment and physician-assisted suicide. The 2000 study focuses on the impact of political campaigns on citizens’ learning about and evaluation of candidates, and the 2001 study will assess the quality of community life. For more information about the Detroit Area Study, visit the study Web site at www.lsa.umich.edu/soc/DAS/index.html

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David R. WilliamssociologyPsychologyTable of findings from this reportSurvey of Consumer AttitudesDetroit Area Study