With the Supreme Court expected to soon rule on a case involving job discrimination claims by white firefighters, and Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s decision in a lower court ruling on the case drawing scrutiny, there is renewed focus on public opinion about affirmative action programs and overall efforts to improve the position of minorities in this country. The public has generally been supportive of such efforts, but is decidedly opposed to the idea of providing preferential treatment to minorities.

In the most recent Pew Research Center values survey, released May 21, just 31% agreed that “we should make every effort to improve the position of blacks and minorities, even if it means giving them preferential treatment.” More than twice as many (65%) disagreed with this statement. That balance of opinion has fluctuated only modestly through the 22-year history of the values survey.

The values survey revealed continuing racial differences in attitudes about this issue. Majorities of both African Americans (58%) and Hispanics (53%) favor preferential treatment to improve the position of blacks and other minorities; just 22% of whites agree.

Divisions over this issue are mirrored in deep differences among Democratic groups. Among self-described Democrats and independents who “lean” Democratic, majorities of African Americans (60%) and Hispanics (57%) say every effort should be made to improve the position of minorities, even if it means giving them preferential treatment. By contrast, just 31% of white Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents favor blacks and other minorities getting preferential treatment, while 66% are opposed.

The opinions of white Democrats on this issue are closer to those of white Republicans than they are to those of non-white Democrats. Just 12% of white Republicans favor giving minorities preferential treatment to improve their condition.

Views of Affirmative Action

While the public rejects the use of preferential treatment to improve the position of minorities, in the past it has expressed broad support for affirmative action programs aimed at helping blacks and women gain access to better jobs and education.

In January 2007, 70% said they favored “affirmative action programs to help blacks, women and other minorities get better jobs and education,” while 25% opposed these programs. Support for affirmative action programs had increased substantially from the mid-1990s; in August 1995, 58% favored affirmative action programs while 36% were opposed.

Notably, between 1995 and 2007 there was a sharp increase in the proportion of whites expressing support for affirmative action programs. In 2007, 65% of whites favored these programs, up from 53% a dozen years earlier. Support among African Americans, which was overwhelming in 1995 (94%), remained so in 2007 (93%).

Pew Research surveys have found far less support for affirmative action programs when they are described as giving preferences to African Americans. In 2007, as part of a major survey about public opinion about race relations, the Pew Reserch Center’s Social & Demographic Trends project asked separate groups of respondents different questions about affirmative action programs intended to “overcome past discrimination.”

One group was asked about affirmative action programs “designed to help blacks get better jobs and education:” 60% favored these programs, while 30% were opposed. The other group was asked about affirmative action programs that “give special preferences to qualified blacks in hiring and education.” Opinion was more evenly divided in this case; 46% favored affirmative action programs that give special preferences to qualified blacks, while 40% oppose these programs.

A narrow majority of whites (52%) favored affirmative action programs when they were characterized as helping blacks to get better jobs and education; 37% were opposed. However, more whites opposed (47%) than favored (39%) affirmative action programs that were described as giving special preferences to blacks. There also was less support among African Americans and Hispanics for affirmative action programs giving special preferences to blacks; however, substantial majorities in both groups still expressed support for affirmative action under those circumstances.

For more from this survey, see “Blacks See Growing Gap Between Poor and Middle Class,” Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends, Nov. 13, 2007.