Study: Racial Prejudice is Reason for Affirmative Action Resistance
DETROIT — The primary factor in Michigan residents’ opposition to affirmative action is racial prejudice, according to a recent University of Michigan study.
The traditional form of prejudice, where Whites think Blacks are inferior, has shifted to a more emotional dimension, involving how Whites feel about Blacks, says Dr. David R. Williams, one of the authors of the study.
“What is important here is that we are documenting that racism still matters a lot in matters dealing with public policy,” says Williams, a sociologist.
The study, conducted by Williams and Dr. James S. Jackson at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, is based on data from a 1995 survey of 1,139 adult White residents of Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties, which make up much of the metropolitan Detroit area.
The researchers examined the relationship between White support for government intervention to improve the position of Blacks and various measures of racial prejudice, such as biological and social beliefs, as well as economic status.
The study found that Whites who subscribed to statements reflecting a more subtle brand of racial prejudice — for example, that Blacks should work their way up, that Blacks blame Whites too much for their problems or that Blacks have gotten more than they deserve — were also more likely to oppose affirmative action.
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.
The survey, part of the Detroit Area Study, established in 1951, also found about 48 percent of Detroit area Whites in favor of special preferences for Blacks and 50 percent saying the government should improve their position.
“We found that a higher percentage of Whites in the Detroit area support affirmative action compared to the national White population,” Williams says. “Our study does not give us the specific reason for that. We do know that persons in the South and persons in the nonurban areas are less supportive of affirmative action programs.”
About 40 percent of Whites nationally support affirmative action, Jackson says.
Two lawsuits filed against the university in 1997 seek to ban the school from using race in its admissions process for undergraduates or law school students.
Curt Levey, spokesman for The Center for Individual Rights, a Washington-based organization guiding the lawsuits, says there wasn’t enough difference between the study’s measure for subtle prejudice and racial preference.
“These questions are talking about racial policy,” Levey says. “To say that if you disagree with them on racial policy that makes you a racist is very presumptuous.”
There is racism at the university, Levey says, and the researchers should focus on their own racism instead of Michigan residents.
“To try to shift the attention from that illegality to the motives of those who oppose the illegality is shooting the messenger,” he says.
Williams says he would rather focus on the Economic Report of the President sent to Congress in February 1998, which showed that there had been no decline in the Black-White gap in income from 1978 to 1996.
The report says that in 1978, Black households earned on average 59 cents for every dollar earned by White households. In 1996, those figures had not changed.
Since the gap has not changed, but Whites are more opposed to affirmative action programs, then the issue becomes what is driving the opposition, he says.
“Many persons in America would like to think of prejudice as a relic of the past,” Williams says. “But our finding suggests that racial prejudice is still an important force that drives public policy. We have to think about this opposition to affirmative action and think about what is driving it.”
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