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Americans Vent Anger at Affirmative Action

By Richard Morin and Sharon Warden
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 24, 1995; Page A01

Americans don't merely talk about affirmative action. They shout.

"Blacks . . . walk around with a chip on their shoulder, like we owe them something," said Shirley Powell, 61, a housewife in Angleton, Tex. "I don't feel that we do."

"We don't have a level playing ground and I believe affirmative action is a feeble attempt to create a level playing ground," said Leander Woods, 49, a manufacturing executive living in Lake Hopatcong, N.J.

"They talk about a glass ceiling for women and minorities," said Ira Linville, 52, a technical specialist for the Environmental Protection Agency in Conyers, Ga. "There's a glass ceiling for middle-aged white male managers too."

These voices echo the anger, ambivalence and deep frustration felt by millions of people on both sides of the national debate on affirmative action, a new Washington Post-ABC News national poll discloses.

Three out of four Americans surveyed said they opposed affirmative action programs that give preference to minorities to make up for past discrimination, and a virtually identical proportion felt the same way about programs for women, according to the survey. And more than two out of three said those programs should be changed – or eliminated.

The survey found that affirmative action, like most racial issues, sharply divides whites and blacks. And within communities of color, a debate about affirmative action also rages: Nearly half of all African Americans interviewed said they opposed affirmative action programs giving preference to minorities.

The poll of 1,524 randomly selected Americans and subsequent in-depth interviews with 40 survey participants and others suggest that the debate over affirmative action is shaped by divergent views about the nature, extent and even the existence of racial and sex discrimination in contemporary American life.

The survey comes as the debate over affirmative action that began in the late 1960s enters a new and critical phase.

Some Republicans in Congress, with the support of many Democrats, have vowed to end all preference programs. The battle to guarantee equal rights for all citizens has been fought and won, they argue, and it is not the job of government, business or the educational system to guarantee equal outcomes or favor one group over another.

"I think it's equaled out, there's really no need for that anymore," said Joseph L. Ruhnke, 31, a testing technician in Gilbert, Ariz. "It just makes me upset when this subject gets thrown down your throat. I'm a white single male and they try to make you feel guilty because they're not getting jobs and that it's our fault. It's not my fault that somebody can't get a job."

But to many supporters of affirmative action, race and sex discrimination is not ancient history.

"We {Asians} do not have the same opportunities as whites," said Maria Divina Jocson, 47, a word processing manager who lives in Alexandria, Va. "If we are discriminated against, we keep quiet – we don't have a voice. . . . You accept what their decision is. You are content with what you have."

Affirmative action is needed "because of the serious disadvantages that blacks and other minorities have suffered in the workplace and in education, even today," said Woods, who is black. "You have white managers in the majority of the high-level management positions making decisions on promotions, pay raises and management positions. In my experience, they tend to hire and promote and favor those who are most like them either in ethnic background or in educational background."

Last week, the Glass Ceiling Commission reported that 97 percent of senior managers at the Fortune 1,000 corporations were white males. Two-thirds of the overall population and 57 percent of the nation's work force is female or a minority or both.

Many supporters of affirmative action preference programs say that it is a question of fairness: These modest advantages to minorities and women are no more than payback for hundreds of years of discrimination that benefited whites and men at the expense of blacks and women. "There should be some type of reparations for 300 to 400 to 500 years of discrimination of all types of minorities, not just blacks," said Graig Gillis, 25, an African American college student who lives in Matteson, Ill. After slavery, "justice wasn't done." And even today, "I think a higher standard is held for minorities. I think they are discriminated against psychologically."

"If women are carrying the same credentials and everything is equal to that point, I think they should get a little bit extra push," said Katherine Cranage, 51, a reference librarian in Freedom, N.H. "This is the 75th year of our right to vote as women – that's not a long time . . . considering that men have run the world since the beginning of time."

But many opponents of affirmative action angrily dismiss suggestions that preferences are needed to make up for past discriminatory practices.

"There is absolutely no reason to try to get even with what happened to past generations," said Jack Landwehr, 39, a production supervisor in an industrial paint factory in Racine, Wis. "People make of life what they put into it."

"The blacks think we owe them something for going getting them {from Africa}," said Philip Lang, 45, who owns a small grocery store in Cheraw, S.C. "I didn't go get anybody. That was 200 years ago. Why should I suffer so they can have a better chance in jobs or anything for that matter."

Many women and blacks are torn over affirmative action, the survey disclosed. Two out of three women opposed affirmative action preference programs for women, compared to three out of four men. And while 52 percent of those blacks interviewed said they supported preference programs for minorities, nearly as many – 46 percent – did not.

Many minorities expressed concern that white preoccupation with affirmative action blinds whites to qualifications of minorities and women, who become lumped together as "preference hires" even when they had won jobs or promotions by hard work or merit. Some also agreed with critics who said affirmative action sometimes produced reverse discrimination.

"Affirmative action to me was supposed to be used to equal things out. Now it's used as an excuse," said Bryant J. Williams, 20, an Army specialist living in Herlong, Calif. "The whole minority-majority affirmative action thing really bothers me. . . . I am equal if not superior to, so just to consider me in a category of minority is not right."

Ernie Sandoval, 20, a Hispanic college student in Paradise, Calif., said he fears that backlash to affirmative action is hurting relations between the races. "I consider affirmative action to be reverse discrimination, and I think affirmative action is counterproductive," he said. "I think it helped the African American community throughout the '70s for a while and women. But at this point it is dividing the races."

The poll found Americans deeply divided over whether affirmative action hurts white males. Half of those interviewed – 51 percent -- said white men had been adversely affected by preference programs, while 46 percent disagreed.

These views varied sharply by race. Fifty-seven percent of all whites interviewed and 63 percent of all white males thought affirmative action had hurt white men, a view shared by just 19 percent of all blacks.

Allen Hamblin, 20, a Mormon missionary in Bristol, Va., wants to go to college but is having trouble finding the money. He sees himself blocked from applying for scholarships that are open to needy blacks but not to equally needy whites. "I'm not going to be able to get a college education as easy and I'm not going to be able to get a job as easy with affirmative action in place, and without a college education there's no way I'm going to get a job in a field that I like," Hamblin said.

Despite these widespread fears, the survey found that only 10 percent of all white males interviewed said they had been denied a job or promotion because of their gender and 17 percent said they had faced employment discrimination because of their race.

Supporters and opponents of affirmative action generally agree on one thing: They're dissatisfied with existing affirmative action programs.

But what changes should be made? Make sure preferences are used only to boost minorities or women who otherwise meet requirements, many said. And end hiring practices that amount to quotas, a view that echoed results from surveys conducted over the past 10 years.

"Minorities should get a certain preference, but not to the extent that companies are hiring just to fill quotas," said Darren Sakai, 20, a legal assistant living in the District of Columbia. "I don't doubt that affirmative action has helped me somewhat. . . . {But} I am competitive. I can keep up with my white Caucasian counterparts."

"There are people qualified in all groups," said Ira Linville, the EPA technical specialist. "I would put more emphasis on qualifications rather than just direct goals to meet quotas."

Others said America needs to look inward and across the racial divide. "We all need to live as a family instead of a racial group," said Hamblin, the Mormon missionary.

That's a good theory, affirmative action supporters might say. But until human nature is perfected, many argue the country will need affirmative action programs.

"I can't see doing away with it, not until there's a utopia," said Donald Smith, 48, a senior medical technologist in Princeton, W.Va. "I wish we didn't have to fool with it period. . . . But I don't guess we'll ever reach that goal. I don't think man will ever get to the point where he's not going to be selfish and nonprejudiced."

© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post Company

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