Civil rights proposal has voters conflicted
Survey shows many remain split on issue
BY DAWSON BELL
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
Michigan voters have definite — but often conflicting — opinions about affirmative action, and remain closely divided overall on the proposed ban on race and gender preferences in government hiring, contracting and university admissions, according to The Detroit Free Press-Local 4 Michigan Poll.
The proposed ban, which will appear on the Nov. 7 ballot as Proposal 2, was favored by 41% of 643 likely voters and opposed by 44%, with 15% undecided.
The poll, conducted Oct. 8-11, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.
The new poll showed little change from Free Press-Local 4 polls conducted in July and late August on the issue.In line with other surveys on the volatile topic, men were more likely to favor the ban than women (47%-36% respectively).
White men, in fact, are the only large voting bloc in which a majority support the proposal (53%-37%). African Americans remain deeply opposed to the ban on affirmative action (83%-15%).
Yet at the same time, voters were skeptical about some of the arguments commonly used to bolster support for the practice.
They disagreed, 60%-32%, with the statement that affirmative action was “needed to compensate minorities and women for centuries of oppression.”
An overwhelming majority, 76%, agreed that “it is unfair to judge applicants on anything other than their qualifications.” Yet three out of four said diversity in the classroom gives students a competitive edge in the global economy.
And a plurality of voters (45%-42%) said that even if affirmative action may harm some individuals, “the good that it has done makes up for that.”
Pollster Ann Selzer, of Selzer & Co. Inc. in Des Moines, Iowa, said voters views on affirmative action are “personal and complicated. Even within a single person, you can see division and uncertainty.”
The poll and follow-up interviews conducted by the Free Press “tap into a conversation people are having in their own heads,” Selzer said.
Barbara House, an African-American woman who has lived in Detroit since moving from Alabama as a child, said she plans to vote “No” on Proposal 2. Affirmative action is a good tool, she said, because without it, many people, especially African Americans, would suffer from discrimination.
A housekeeper on temporary leave to care for her ailing husband, House said she believes she has been mistreated on the job in the past because of her race.
But she also said that discrimination and unfair treatment happen to “every group, every religion” at one time or another. Racial discrimination in the United States is not as oppressive as it once was, she said, and it would be nice “if people stopped looking at everything as a race issue.”
Ken Biedermann, a 56-year-old semiretired financial analyst from Howell, said affirmative action is “something that was needed in the past. But America on the whole has gone beyond that.”
People should be judged on merit, Biedermann said. He said racial and cultural integration are desirable for Michigan, but that government shouldn’t engineer it.Mary Bush, a 60-year-old retail shop owner in Bay City, said her views on affirmative action are highly personal.
Bush, who is white, said she comes from a disadvantaged background, growing up poor in Grand Rapids in a mostly black neighborhood.
She struggled, she said, and was even told at one point in her academic career that she didn’t qualify for a scholarship because of her skin color.
“I lived in similar circumstances to a lot of poor black people,” she said. “But I always felt like I had a leg up because I was white.”
Bush said she’ll vote “No” on Proposal 2, but would like to see less of a “victim mentality” about race relations in Michigan and across the country.
She was among the majority in the survey who have so far not been convinced by opponents of the ban that the main beneficiaries of affirmative action are women rather than minorities.
Poll respondents said minorities have benefited more (51%-21%). The remainder said they’ve benefited equally or had no opinion.
Pointing out the benefits of affirmative action for women has been one of the primary tactics of the Proposal 2 opposition campaign, in part because there are more women, and women are more politically powerful than minorities.
The poll results suggest they may be able to succeed without winning that argument. Nevertheless, women were more likely to oppose the ban than men, especially white men; 47% of women oppose the ban, while 36% support it.
Selzer said people seem to believe “there are good arguments on both sides. They might make up their minds based on the last persuasive argument they hear.”