May 1 1998

Media Preferences

The Myth of Popular Opposition in the Affirmative Action Debate

“Houston Slows the Tidal Wave.” So said a recent headline in the U.S. News and World Report (11/17/97). But the notion that there is a popular, tidal wave-like movement in the United States, moving inexorably to erase affirmative action for women and racial minorities from the landscape of American life and law, is a myth. And at the heart of this myth is an image of outraged citizens expressing their disapproval of affirmative action through opinion polls, the ballot box and their legislators.

The real impetus for the attempt to roll-back affirmative action policy comes from a federal judiciary still dominated by Reagan/Bush appointees (L.A. Times, 2/15/1998), with the support of right-wing legal-policy groups. (See Sally Covington’s Moving a Public Policy Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations.) But the media myth of a popular anti-affirmative action “tidal wave” continues, threatening to swamp reality itself.

Steam or Fog?

A striking example of this penchant for exaggeration occurred in the Wall Street Journal (2/23/98), under the misleading headline, “Moves Heat Up Battle to End Preferences.” The article stated that “the anti-affirmative action movement is picking up steam again,” but in the next breath demonstrated exactly the opposite, citing examples of the cooling off of anti-affirmative action efforts throughout the country.

A ballot initiative campaign to repeal affirmative action in Washington and the mere possibility that an appeals court might overturn some elements of affirmative action in Houston was all the evidence provided of a “movement.” On the other hand, we were told that the effort to roll back affirmative action through popular ballot initiatives had “sputtered” in Florida and in Colorado, where “no group has surfaced to champion the cause.” An anti-affirmative action organizer admitted that interest in mobilizing a popular attack on affirmative action was, at best, “spotty.” For a further case in point, it turns out that “just last week” the Georgia legislature “rebuffed an effort to ban affirmative action.” So where’s all the heat?

Probably the biggest chapter in the affirmative action story in 1997 was the rejection by Houston voters of a ballot initiative that would have banned gender and racial minority set-asides in Houston government contracting. This came a year after the success of Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action ballot initiative in California. Unlike in California, the anti- forces have failed elsewhere: Anti=affirmative action initiatives were introduced in 17 state legislatures in 1995 and in 1996, but all of them were unsuccessful (From Gender Gap to Gender Gulf, by Eleanor Smeal at National Press Club (2/13/1997) . Only in California did the deceptively titled “California Civil Rights Initiative” initiative pass, and this against the will of a majority of African-Americans, Latinos and Asians.

The “Houston Slows the Tidal Wave” piece falters when one asks to see the “tidal wave” Houston supposedly slowed. In the U.S. News article, an unnamed Clinton administration official is quoted as saying that in Houston “you had the possibility of a tidal wave” (emphasis added) but that “Houston stopped it.” The lack of an anti-affirmative action tidal wave at the popular level is mirrored by the lack of evidence for a tidal wave in the article.

Actually, in the aftermath of Houston, some ground was gained in the struggle to defend affirmative action. The Republican-led Congress tabled anti-affirmative action legislation, apparently fearing a popular backlash (USA Today, 11/7/97). President Clinton continued to pledge qualified executive branch support for affirmative action and to stand by Bill Lann Lee, a staunch affirmative action supporter whose nomination to the post of assistant attorney general for civil rights was being opposed and held up by conservatives in Congress. Internationally, the Court of Justice of the European Communities issued a landmark decision in support of affirmative action for European women.

In what the U.S. opponents of affirmative action would no doubt characterize as an immoral policy of “gender preference,” the London Financial Times (11/12/97) reported that the European high court found that “equally qualified women may be appointed before men where women are under-represented.” In words that are very relevant to the debate over what anti-affirmative action opponents label “preferences,” the court noted that “the mere fact that a male and female candidate are equally qualified does not mean that they have the same chances. Where a promotion is involved, men tend to be chosen in preference to women, since they benefit from deep-rooted prejudices and from stereotypes” (emphasis added).

Most mainstream media missed this momentous decision. The New York Times covered it (11/22/97), but there was not one word about the decision in the Washington Post or the L.A. Times, in Time, Newsweek or U.S. News & World Report, on ABC, NBC or CBS‘s nightly newscasts or on PBS‘s NewsHour. One can only wonder what extensive coverage of such a decision would have done for the debate over affirmative action in the United States, especially with the court’s emphasis on affirmative action as a women’s issue and its clarification that affirmative action is preeminently a policy of counter-preference against institutionalized preference for the traditionally favored group.

In spite of these domestic and international victories for affirmative action, the San Francisco Examiner (11/22/97) could still proclaim the “Tide Rolling Against Affirmative Action.” The Economist (11/29/97) concluded that for affirmative-action opponents, “the tide of public opinion is running their way.”

UPI (11/16/97) dispatched a story with the erroneous headline, “Affirmative Action Remains Unpopular,” about a statewide poll showing Texans “overwhelmingly oppose preferential treatment for minorities.” Contradicting the headline, the story stated that a majority of Texans, when asked if they supported “affirmative action” and not “preferential treatment for minorities,” said yes. The poll demonstrates once again the importance of the term used to describe affirmative action when assessing–or reporting–people’s views on the policy.

Mikal Muharrar is the coordinator of FAIR’s Racism Desk. He contributes a regular column on racism in the media to Extra!.