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The Hidden Truth About Liberals and Affirmative Action

By Richard Morin
The Washington Post
Sunday, September 21, 1997; Page C05

Surveys typically show that most political liberals and Democrats support affirmative action while most conservatives and Republicans reject it.

But everybody knows that people don't always say what they really think when they're talking about race. So are all of those liberals revealing their true feelings about affirmative action?

No, say Paul Sniderman of Stanford University and Edward Carmines of Indiana University. They've discovered that white liberals are just as angry about affirmative action as other whites – they're just less willing to admit it, they argue in their new book, "Reaching Beyond Race," published by Harvard University.

Sniderman and Carmines say their results are very bad news for supporters of affirmative action as well as the Democratic party, which "is now threatened with a loss of support at its center because of resentment over the new race-conscious agenda."

These political scientists uncovered liberals' little secret through a series of novel experiments designed to measure attitudes toward affirmative action without tipping off poll participants as to what they were doing.

Sniderman and Carmines included what they called "the List Experiment" in a number of national surveys, which also included questions that measured respondents' political attitudes and demographic charcteristics.

They first divided a representative national sample randomly into two groups. One group was asked this question: "I'm going to read to you a list of three things that sometimes make people angry or upset. After I read all three, just tell me how many of them upset you. I don't want to know which ones, just how many."

Then the interviewer read a list of three items: the federal government increasing the tax on gasoline; professional athletes getting million-dollar-plus salaries; large corporations polluting the environment.

The second group was read the same question. But a fourth item was added to the list: black leaders asking the government for affirmative action. (In subsequent tests, the words "black leaders" and "affirmative action" were replaced by other, less emotional terms, or dropped entirely.)

While it was impossible to pin down the views of individual respondents, it was a simple matter to identify the total percentage who were upset by affirmative action, Sniderman said. "Since three of the items are exactly the same in the two experimental conditions, and since the two subsamples being interviewed are identical except for chance," any differences in the average number of angry mentions necessarily reflects the number who were angered by affirmative action. Very clever, boys.

Also very revealing: When the researchers analyzed the results, they found the political divisions over affirmative action found in other polls were conspicuously missing. "White liberals were as angry as conservatives, [57 percent versus 50 percent] and Democrats [65 percent] were as angry as Republicans [64 percent]," Sniderman said – a result that they've replicated in subsequent surveys using longer lists and different wording of the affirmative action statement.

There is a solution, and it's simple, Sniderman said. The tests reveal that many whites do have genuinely positive feelings toward blacks, and broadly favor inclusive policies that target the deserving disadvantaged, regardless of race. They advocate a return to color blind policies that appeal to America's sense of fairness and historical commitment to equality.

Sounds, well, too sweet – and perhaps too naive – to work. Maybe so, Sniderman said, but it's the strategy that Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders used to shame white Americans into ending legal segregation in the 1960s.

Affirmative Action Part II: When Words Anger

Carmines and Sniderman discovered just how potent the words "affirmative action" were in provoking white anger in an experiment they called the "Mere Mention" test.

In a national survey, the political scientists varied the sequence of a question asking about attitudes toward affirmative action with a group of questions measuring agreement with several racist stereotypes: Did the respondents believe that "most blacks" were "lazy"? Were they "irresponsible"? Were they "arrogant"?

The results surprised even the researchers. When the affirmative action question was asked first, 43 percent of all whites said most blacks were "irresponsible," compared with 26 percent when the affirmative action came after the questions about the negative characteristics.

Likewise, the percentage who identified blacks as "lazy" increased to 31 percent from 20 percent when the affirmative action question came first, and the proportion saying most blacks were "arrogant" rose from 29 percent to 36 percent.

"It is impressive that merely changing the order of the questions should have made any difference whatsoever." Also dismaying: The power of the mere mention of affirmative action "to sharpen hostility toward blacks," they reported.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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