WASHINGTON – Four in five Americans say it's important for colleges to have racially diverse student bodies, but only half think affirmative action still is needed to help blacks, Hispanics and other minorities, an Associated Press poll found.
Blacks and whites have dramatically different views about how to achieve diversity, says the poll, conducted for the AP by ICR/International Communications Research of Media, Pa. A slight majority in the overall poll think affirmative action programs still are necessary - 51 percent to 43 percent. Among blacks, 89 percent think it's necessary.
About six in 10 young adults in the poll, from 18 to 34 years old, said affirmative action is still needed.
Thomas Robinson, a retired school administrator from Woodsfield, Ohio, offers a glimpse into the mixed emotions many whites have on the issue. He thinks the country has overcome much of the racism from past days but is not yet close to eliminating it.
But he does not support affirmative action.
"At one time it was needed, but I think it should be abolished," said Robinson, who has a carpentry business to help pay his bills. "Whites are losing out, because affirmative action bumps them out."
Affirmative action is getting its biggest legal test in a quarter-century, a challenge to admissions policies at the University of Michigan and its law school that is before the Supreme Court. The case will be argued April 1, with a decision expected by summer.
The case marks the court's first statement on racial preference programs in academic admissions since the 1978 Bakke case, which affirmative action critics and backers alike say has muddied the waters ever since.
In that case, the court voted 5-4 to outlaw racial quotas in university admissions, but left room for race to be a factor considered in admissions. Michigan and many other public universities have used the ruling to design programs that can help minorities who might be rejected if only test scores and grades were considered.
Most in the poll, 80 percent, said diverse student populations are important for colleges. Most blacks and whites said it was important. Half in the overall poll said it was very important.
Katy Dominy, 22, is one of those who thinks diversity at colleges is very important.
"I think it's very important so we can learn from one another," she said. "We can learn many things from people of other countries that you can't get out of a textbook."
Like many young adults, she thinks affirmative action should be continued.
"It's far from being equal in America," said the white medical assistant from Sweet Home, Ore. "You do see whites get better jobs, higher pay just because of the way they look."
The base of support for affirmative action in this country is hard to measure, because even a small change in the emphasis of a poll question can bring dramatically different results.
When people were asked in the AP poll if they thought programs should be continued that give "advantages and preferences" to blacks, Hispanics and other minorities in hiring, promotions and college admissions, 53 percent said yes. Another 35 percent said those programs should be abolished. The AP poll of 1,013 adults was taken Feb. 28-March 4 and has an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
When people were asked recently in another poll if race should be used as a factor in college admissions, people were opposed by a 2-1 margin.
President Bush, explaining his opposition to the Michigan program, called it "a quota system based solely on race." The president says there are better methods of achieving campus diversity. Backers of the Michigan approach say it's not a quota system but considers race among many factors considered.
Jacqueline Love, a retired special education counselor from Detroit, says affirmative action helped her get her job many years ago helping students with special needs. The black retiree says plenty of people, other minorities as well as blacks, still need a chance like the one she got.
"People need an opportunity, there are some blacks who are qualified, but who need those extra points," she said. "It gives individuals an opportunity to be successful. They still have to have the ability and the background."