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Gallup has a must-read new article discussing SFFA v. Harvard College in the context of the history of its polling on affirmative action, “The Harvard Affirmative Action Case and Public Opinion.”

Briefly, the bottom line is that the public tends to favor “affirmative action” … so long as it is not defined. But it strongly and consistently opposes the practices that are actually at the core of affirmative action when those practices are named.

A few excerpts:

  • Gallup polls have shown that a majority — although not a super majority — of Americans favor the broad, conceptual idea of “affirmative action for racial minorities.” Responses to this question are to some degree affected by the context in which it is asked, but our most recent updates show that 54% to 58% of the public favors affirmative action for racial minorities.
  • When specifics are outlined for respondents, support drops. In 2016, Gallup, in conjunction with Inside Higher Ed, asked a question about the then-recent Supreme Court decision in Fisher v. University of Texas, worded as follows: “The Supreme Court recently ruled on a case that confirms that colleges can consider the race or ethnicity of students when making decisions on who to admit to the college. Overall, do you approve or disapprove of the Supreme Court’s decision?”The results: 31% approval and 65% disapproval, a sharp reversal from what the broad affirmative action results show.
  • …?Majorities said that high school grades (73%) and scores on standardized tests (55%) should be major factors in college admissions, while 50% said that the types of courses the student took should be a major factor. Well less than half said any of the other six factors should be major considerations. This includes in particular race or ethnicity, which 9% of Americans believe should be a major factor, 27% a minor factor and 63% not a factor at all in college admissions.
  • .A separate question Gallup has asked four times between 2003 and 2016 does provide an explanation for the two sides of this argument:

    Which comes closer to your view about evaluating students for admission into a college or university — [ROTATED: applicants should be admitted solely on the basis of merit, even if that results in few minority students being admitted (or) an applicant’s racial and ethnic background should be considered to help promote diversity on college campuses, even if that means admitting some minority students who otherwise would not be admitted]?

    The wording of this question can be debated, and some may argue that the two sides of the argument are not adequately represented. But the key is to consider how Americans react when they hear these specific arguments. And the answer to that is clear. Each of the four times Gallup has asked this question over a 13-year time period, between 67% and 70% of Americans chose the “solely on merit” option.

In short, whatever Americans say about “affirmative action,” a substantial majority is firmly and consistently opposed to preferential treatment based on race or ethnicity.

Say What?