National Opinion Polls on Affirmative Action: Inflaming an Issue that is Divisive Enough


Since the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case of 1978, the Supreme Court has been asked on several occasions to rule on the constitutionality of using race as one factor in higher education admissions. The Court has consistently held that diversity is a compelling interest and that race – not quotas, can be one of many factors in selecting a class of students. In the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard College and the University of North Carolina (SFFA), the Court is once again faced with the decision to respect decades of precedent or reverse the holistic admissions policy that selective colleges have used since the Court ruled in the Grutter v. Bollinger decision in 2003.

Complicating this issue is that the Census Bureau predicts that by mid-century, America will be “majority minority.” Thus, while America becomes more diverse, the Court may take action to ensure that the centuries-old privileges enjoyed by non-minorities will remain. The late Justice Sandra Day O’Connor correctly observed in Grutter however: “In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity.” Ironically, the intended beneficiaries of the Fourteenth Amendment may be denied its equalShirley WilcherShirley Wilcher protection.

Graduates of selective institutions constitute a sizable portion of the nation’s leaders, including Supreme Court justices, where eight out of nine members of the current Court graduated from Harvard or Yale Law schools. If there are few Blacks, Hispanics or Native Americans admitted to these law schools, their chances of being nominated to serve on the High Court will be slim.  

That gets to the question of national opinion polls on affirmative action.  On October 22nd, the Washington Post reported in bold letters, that “Over 6 in 10 Americans favor leaving race out of college admissions, Post-Schar School poll finds.”  The subtitle, albeit written in much smaller text, states, “But an equally strong majority backs programs to boost racial and ethnic diversity among students.”  While the poll attempts to reflect the nuance of public attitudes towards affirmative action in admissions, it misses the mark.

The problem with polls, as is clear in the Washington Post story, is that the result depends upon the question asked. If you ask if respondents oppose admitting students based on their race, the majority will predictably say “Yes.”  If you ask if respondents support diversity on college campuses the answer may be the opposite.

A September 26th poll commissioned by the Leadership Conference Education Fund announced that “National Poll Shows Majority Believes Affirmative Action in Higher Education Is Essential, Must Be Protected by the Supreme Court.”  According to the poll, “a majority of people in America believe that diverse college and university campuses are beneficial to students, college admissions should take into account a student’s whole story, and the U.S. Supreme Court must protect affirmative action.” 

What is salient in the Leadership Conference report is the “whole story,” i.e., the holistic process that the Supreme Court required in the 2003 Grutter decision.  A college must consider each student’s application and experiences individually. Race, as one of many factors, is allowed as a consideration. The Post poll fails to acknowledge that this is the process that selective colleges and universities have been using since Grutter. By omitting the actual process that considers each student by their merits and talents, as well as the experiences that come with growing up Black, Hispanic or Native American in the USA, the poll implies that a “racial thumb” has been placed on the scales in favor of these students.   

In the SFFA case the record is clear that race was only one of many factors in admissions decisions by Harvard and the University of North Carolina. Under holistic admissions, a student could be the child of an alumna, an athlete, a tuba player from Montana, or a descendant of slaves.

Any person of color in America knows that “race” is not only about melanin; it is the experiences that children who happen to be Black, Hispanic or Native American learn all too well at an early age.  If a talented and qualified student of color applies to a Harvard or UNC, overcoming the challenges of race in America, those experiences deserve recognition as part of the holistic admissions process.

Pollsters need to play by the rules and pose questions that reflect the actual admissions process, not further inflame racial divisions. They’re intense enough.

Shirley J. Wilcher is executive director of the American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity and President of the Fund for Leadership, Equity, Access and Diversity