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Americans Oppose Racial Preferences By: David G. Savage
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, February 07, 2003

By a 2 to 1 majority, Americans approve of President Bush's call to strike down a race-based admissions policy at the University of Michigan and say that students should be judged only on their academic records, according to a new Los Angeles Times poll.

However, when given a possible alternative, the respondents say they would support an affirmative action policy that gives a preference to individuals who come from an economically disadvantaged background, regardless of their race, ethnicity or gender.

Three weeks ago, Bush took what some advisors thought was a political risk with a position on two affirmative action cases before the Supreme Court. Oral arguments in the cases, which involve undergraduate and law school admissions policies at the Ann Arbor campus, are scheduled for late March.

But the president voiced a view that is shared across the political spectrum, including by a slim plurality of Democrats and minorities, the poll found.

On Jan. 15, Bush said he supported diversity in higher education, but called the University of Michigan's admissions policy "fundamentally flawed" because it "unfairly rewards or penalizes students based solely on their race."

Applicants are granted or denied admission based on a system that allocates points for a variety of factors, including perfect SAT scores, athletic skills or being the child of a Michigan graduate. The school gives 20 points to applicants who are black, Mexican American or Native American.

Three white students who were denied admission sued, claiming that they were victims of discrimination. The Bush administration joined the case on their side and urged the Supreme Court to declare these "racial preferences" unconstitutional.

Instead, the president said, colleges and universities should use "race-neutral" means of enrolling more minority students. He used as an example the policies in four states, including California, that automatically grant admission to the state university system to top students in all public high schools, including those in low-income areas or with primarily minority enrollment.

The Times Poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, interviewed a national sample of 1,385 people, contacted randomly by telephone, from Jan. 30 to Feb. 2. The margin of sampling error in the poll is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

When asked whether they approved or disapproved of Bush's opposition to the University of Michigan's "racial preference admissions program," 55% said they approved of the president's position and 27% disapproved.

Opposition to race-based admissions was highest among the youngest respondents and declined steadily among those who were older.

About two-thirds of those aged 18 to 29, or 67%, said they agreed with Bush's stand against the university, while 22% were opposed to the administration's position. Those over age 65 were more closely split, with 45% agreeing with Bush and 34% disagreeing.

Of the respondents who identified themselves as Democrats, 44% approved of Bush's position and 39% were opposed, while Republicans approved by a 7-1 majority.

More than a quarter of those surveyed said they were members of racial or ethnic minorities, including blacks, Latinos and Asians. Of these respondents, 46% said they approved of Bush's position and 41% were against it.

"My feeling is you should stand on your record, especially your grades. Your race shouldn't affect it one way or the other," said Karen Chastain, 46, of Michigan City, Ind. Chastain, who took part in the survey, said she has closely followed the University of Michigan case and agrees strongly with Bush's stand. "I just think race should not be part of it," she said.

More than a third of the respondents said that too much emphasis is placed on race and ethnicity. "I think it's a bad idea to focus on color. We don't need to say it was a black guy who robbed the bank. We don't say it was an Irishman or a German who robbed the bank," said Derald Barningham, 70, of Bayfield, Wis.

Others said they were torn by the issue.

"On the one hand, I want to say you should consider someone's race and upbringing and where they came from. But in the end, I say it has be judged on academic merit," said Ursula Bunster, 65, a retired accountant in Burke, Va.

Peggy Montford, 66, of Wichita, Kan., said she looks around her home and is of two minds on the issue.

"I'm white, and I have grandkids who are biracial," she said. "I want everyone to be treated equally, but I also think it is fair to base things on merit. I know we don't have an equal education system now, so you can see I have a lot of opposing ideas."

Despite being against race-based admissions, those surveyed agreed that there is still discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities.

When asked whether America is close or not close to eliminating discrimination, 59% of the respondents said "not too close" or "not close at all," while only 38% said "fairly" or "very" close. A similar division was found across all groups, whether identified by age, political party or race and ethnicity.

Since discrimination continues, so should affirmative action, some said.

"I do not agree with Bush. Black people here in Kentucky, and Latino people, are discriminated against," said Laura Reck, 38, of Murray, Ky. "I believe affirmative action has worked. It sort of equalizes the opportunity for other races, and it shouldn't be eliminated."

Nonetheless, a large share of the respondents were firm in saying that colleges should focus strictly on an applicant's academic record.

They were offered two choices in the survey: Should colleges consider "only a student's record" or instead seek to "balance the student body" by taking into account the ethnicity, gender and geographic location of the applicants? By a 24-point margin (57%-33%), they said that only academic factors should be considered.

Democrats were evenly split, with 46% saying that only academics should be considered and 46% saying that other factors, such as race, should be weighed. Minority respondents were also sharply divided, with 45% agreeing that only academic factors should be considered and 43% disagreeing. Republicans favored focusing only on academics by an overwhelming 73%, with 17% calling for consideration of other factors.

Bush's focus on affirmative action for students from low-income areas also struck a popular chord.

By a majority of about 2 to 1, respondents said they favored giving preferences in jobs and education to those who come from "an economically disadvantaged background," regardless of their ethnicity or gender.

This approach is supported most strongly by Democrats (68%-23%) and minorities (68%-25%), but draws only lukewarm support from Republicans (48%-43%). The overall figures were 60% in favor of such a preference and 31% opposed.

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