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THE TIMES POLL : Most Back Anti-Bias Policy but Spurn Racial Preferences

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION: Fairness or Favoritism?. One in an occasional series

March 30, 1995|CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

From her vantage point in Wichita, Kan., Mary Wehrs finds it distinctly uncomfortable to be on the cusp of national change.

A 46-year-old who has worked in factories since her teens, she is among a generation of women who--whether they believe they have benefited personally or not--have been the biggest recipients of affirmative action largess.

She relates, with a wince that has lasted 17 years, what it is like to have the male hiring manager across the desk ignore her resume and flatly refuse to hire a woman into her chosen field.

Yet she is, she says, ambivalent about the nation's 30-year experiment to give minorities and women equal access to jobs and schooling. Part of her wants to stop affirmative action, and part of her is afraid of the consequences. Nevertheless, Wehrs has come to a conclusion.

"This is my view: It is important that this country take a big deep breath and step back and see that affirmative action, while important at one time, is not doing the job anymore," she said.

That view, with all its ambivalence and worry, encompasses a growing feeling among Americans about one of this nation's broadest and most controversial social policies.

While Americans interviewed in a Los Angeles Times Poll still say they favor the concept of affirmative action by a narrowing margin, they repudiate the most aggressive tool in the policy's arsenal--the use of racial and gender preferences. They oppose using non-academic factors to determine college enrollments, and they are split on the idea of having race-or gender-based hiring goals--stances which, taken together, virtually would gut affirmative action programs as they have come to be practiced.

Still, many exhibit deep concerns about the state of affairs for women and minorities. Overwhelmingly, Americans--and Californians interviewed in a separate poll--believe that discrimination remains common. They describe the living conditions for minorities as well below those enjoyed by whites. Their equivocations are worlds removed from the harsh denunciations of affirmative action that have come from the nation's politicians.

Yet it is undeniable that supporters of affirmative action dwell on the losing side. Californians, and Americans as a whole, believe the programs often rely on quotas-- even though that is generally illegal. Many believe that affirmative action policies have pushed unqualified people ahead of better-qualified peers and many think that those not protected by affirmative action have been wrongly deprived of their rights. The percentage of people who say they have been harmed by reverse discrimination is three times those who say they have benefited from diversity programs.

All told, the message is daunting for those seeking to defeat efforts to curb affirmative action in California and nationwide.

"The real challenge for the proponents of affirmative action is not to make the argument that there's still prejudice," said John Brennan, director of the Times Poll. "They have to make an argument that the tools they want to use are fair. That's tough."

*

Kim Carnahan was born halfway through the affirmative action struggle, just as proponents of equality were realizing that simply denouncing discrimination did not make it end. Now 18, Carnahan, a white student from Oceano, Calif., believes that the more aggressive interventions--like hiring goals and preferences--initiated about the time she was born were wrong.

"Right now I don't think it's needed," she says. "Before, perhaps, it was needed, especially when we were trying to integrate blacks into society. It was probably necessary then. . . . "

Now, she says: "I think that any more affirmative action, especially with quotas on specific jobs, is hurting the people. Instead of being accepted based on qualifications, they are being accepted based on gender and race. I think people ought to be accepted on merit, no matter what."

*

Americans and Californians seem to be moving toward Carnahan's assessment.

In September of 1991, when The Times last polled on the subject, affirmative action programs to benefit minorities were favored nationally by a broad 55%-19% margin. This month, the percentage in favor of affirmative action slipped 3 points, while the percentage opposing it climbed by 10, for a 52%-29% margin. Programs set up to help women were somewhat more popular.

That moderate movement masked a dramatic change in the feelings of white men. While they had favored affirmative action for minorities, 49%-29%, in 1991, the beliefs flipped this month, with support plummeting to 35% and opposition rising to 47%. White men were divided on the issue of affirmative action for women.

In contrast, the views of white women were slightly more negative than in 1991, and there was virtually no change among the strongest defenders of affirmative action--blacks and Latinos.

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