The University Record, March 6, 2000

Affirmative action: major source of white opposition is racial prejudice

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

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 Institute for Social Research (ISR). 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, professor of sociology and senior research scientist at 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 for the Detroit group.

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,” Williams says. “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 Center for Afroamerican and African Studies and director of the Research Center for Group Dynamics at 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.