What Whites Think

Using innovative opinion surveys, a professor of political science unearths hidden attitudes on race and affirmative action.

January/February 1998

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If white Americans could reveal what they really think about race, without the risk of appearing racist, what would they say? That's the question Stanford political science Professor Paul Sniderman and Indiana University's Edward Carmines seek to answer. Their book, Reaching Beyond Race (Harvard University Press, 1997; $22.95), relies on opinion surveys that seem ordinary but in fact contain hidden experiments aimed at eliciting candid responses from interview subjects.

The authors document overwhelming rejection of race-conscious policies like affirmative action -- among liberals as well as conservatives. But their data also show a decline in overt bigotry among whites and an increase in goodwill toward blacks. A few weeks ago, Stanford Editor Bob Cohn talked to Sniderman about the book's conclusions.

Stanford: Why is affirmative action so controversial?

Sniderman: People are trying to come to grips with what is fair. As you listen to people talk about these issues, that becomes really clear. What-ever your own position, it's hard not to hear people's teeth grinding.

And do they think affirmative action is unfair?

It really strikes most people as unfair if somebody gets admitted to college who got, say, a C+ on their grades, and somebody who got a B+ is rejected. It just strikes people as wrong. It has nothing specifically to do with race. It's just an intuition most people have: Whoever is better qualified ought to get the job or get into college.

Your research shows that eight of 10 whites surveyed oppose race-conscious policies -- and one out of two are angry about them.

A big chunk of people are angry about affirmative action. I didn't know there was quite this much boiling resentment.

What we found was that instead of anger over affirmative action being most intense on the political right, it's just as common on the political left. And if that's correct -- and we went a country mile to see whether it was -- it's very hard not to draw some lessons. For example, instead of just splitting liberals from conservatives, which is what ordinary politics does, affirmative action is really splitting liberalism itself.

On that point, I noted that your last chapter is titled, "Liberalism's Predicament." What do you mean by that?

What gives liberalism its strength as a political force is the moral capital that it represents. It has been liberalism's singular honor to have been in the vanguard of the crusade for racial equality. But in the very effort to realize racial equality, it has sometimes committed itself to practices that are hard to square with liberalism.

You define affirmative action as quotas in university admissions and preferences in hiring and promotions. Why not define it less divisively, perhaps in terms of recruiting and outreach programs?

We're not players. We interview people and write down what they say. What we're about is trying to tell you the way the world is. Notwithstanding the fact that affirmative action can mean many different things -- and in a country as institutionally diverse as ours, it means a gazillion different things -- one of the things that affirmative action means integrally now is preferential treatment. It doesn't always mean preferences or quotas, but it oftentimes does. There are merits on both sides, but it's a real thing that people are rguing about. It's an actual practice. What seems to me wrong is to suggest that the argument over affirmative action is essentially a misunderstanding -- that if people could only grasp what's really being done, then it would command the sort of support that proponents believe it should command.

What surprised you most about your research?

What most surprised me was the amount of goodwill there is on the part of whites to see that blacks are better off. We found that there is a substantial portion of white Americans who do think well of blacks and who are sincere in that and who wish to see them better off. Their support can be won, not for every kind of policy, but for a wide range of policies to help those who are badly off, including blacks.

On the other hand, to say that there are fewer bigots isn't to say that there are only a few. There still is a chunk. But then the question remains: Is there anything more to say about the problem? And it seems to me that, for 25 years, we've defined the problem looking only at the amount of ill will that there is. And it's a separate question how much goodwill there is.

What part of your research gives you the most hope?

What seems really quite clear is that, although there's a chunk of people who are fixed in place, there's another chunk that's up for grabs. They can be won by any side, depending on the force of the arguments that are made to them. And that means choices are possible. It depends very much on the quality of political leadership.

What most distresses you?

To see the predicament that liberalism is in. It made some commitments out of honor and it's going to have to carry them out, and those commitments are in conflict with other commitments that it's going to have to carry out.

You mean the conflict inherent in the effort to achieve racial fairness through racial preferences?

Exactly. I don't see how you quite square the circle at the moment. It's a genuine dilemma. It's not just made up. Think of a different example. It's easy for someone who's liberal to understand why a hate speech code can be an attractive possibility, because of a desire to try and create a world in which people feel comfortable if they're different in religion and background and appearance. But it's also hard for many liberals to accept that as a principle. When did liberals get into the business of saying what you can't say?

Do you see any way out of this problem for liberals?

It's the liberals' view that there's an argument for the active use of the government to assist those who are badly off. That may not be in fact the right view, but it is their view. And then the question is, whose support can you win? And we want to say that this is an argument about public policy and not just about who's got a good heart. What's fascinating is that by moving the arguments merely from considerations of race to wider considerations of what is morally justified, liberal policies can win much more support in the public at large -- and one of the places where they win much more support is among liberals themselves.

Is affirmative action dead?

I do think there's a clock running on it. I don't know that very many people would think that's such a terrible idea. I think in fact we've made a decision [to end] affirmative action, but it's going to take some 30 years to see it through. It will most likely be in place for another generation -- even if the Supreme Court were to rule it out tomorrow.

In the meantime, the problem is that we're focusing too much on affirmative action. It's what we're not paying attention to that's the killer.

Like what?

People have to raise their families and find jobs. Look at issues of jobs and families and crime and illegitimacy. Those are the killer problems.


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