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Ambivalence Towards Affirmative Action: Theorizing Political
Accountability in Coalitions, 71 University of Missouri Kansas City Law
Review 399-418, 399-402 (Winter 2002) (94 Footnotes Omitted)
I once attended a media-training workshop on affirmative action
designed to enhance communications skills necessary to discuss
affirmative action in the post-Proposition 209 climate. The consultants
presented focus group data the most and least effective ways of swaying
people to support affirmative action. Workshop attendees were instructed
that people are more likely to support affirmative action if it is
portrayed as a remedy benefiting "women" rather than
"people of color, particularly African Americans." The
consultants also seemed to be saying that affirmative action supporters
should target their message to white women as a group, appealing to the
group's self-interest in maintaining the programs.
Similar survey data were generated relating to the Washington ballot
initiative to end affirmative action in that state. For example, a 1998
Seattle Times poll of likely voters showed that upon being informed that
the initiative would ban affirmative action for both people of color and
women in state and local government, women who had supported the measure
before being told of its overall effect were less likely to favor the
measure, support dropping from 59 percent in favor to 46 percent.
"Women" in this position, which pollsters call "second
guessing a first impression," became the most significant group of
potential supporters. Of course, in the state of Washington, where
whites are the overwhelming majority, "women" can be assumed
to be understood to mean "white women".
Armed with this information, affirmative action activists and women's
organizations crafted strategies to defeat Washington's I-200. While
some organizations focused on the misleading nature of the measure,
which posed as a "civil rights initiative," it soon became
apparent that the strategies relying on exposure of the
"deception" would fall short of victory in the context of
Washington's battleground. The strategy of exposing the deceptive
labeling of the initiative, designed primarily to educate voters about
the actual intent of the measure was derived from the lessons of a 1997
Houston, Texas campaign to end affirmative action programs in the state.
Political analysts credited the mayor of Houston with successfully
defeating an anti-affirmative action proposition by adding language to
clarify that the city's "civil rights" initiative would
eliminate affirmative action. But such a "truth in labeling"
intervention only worked because Houston had a majority of people of
color with whites making up only 10 percent of the city population.
There, whites supported the proposed ban on affirmative action by a 2-1
margin, with 72 percent of white men in favor and 54 percent of white
women in favor. Thus, it was the overwhelming opposition in the African
American community that voted against the measure by a 9-1 margin that
saved affirmative action in Houston.
Given the state of Washington's racial demographics, where 86% of the
population is white (and the proportion of white voters even higher),
the Houston strategy designed to counteract the misleading nature of an
anti- affirmative action proposition could not be expected to make the
difference. Thus, white women became the primary target audience on
which were spent the precious resources of the pro-affirmative action
coalition. But that strategy too failed. To the surprise of many
experts, I-200 passed by a comfortable margin garnering 58 percent of
the vote. More surprisingly, approximately 51% of white women in
Washington voted to end affirmative action. This support was in keeping
with the Houston case where 54% of white women voted against affirmative
action, with the percentage even higher in California--58 percent of
white women in favor of Prop 209.
So what happened? Why didn't at least a simple majority of white
women support affirmative action in any of these cases? Opponents of
Washington's anti-affirmative action measure learned from mistakes in
the California's Prop 209 campaign, and seemingly did everything right,
running a strong campaign. The "No on I-200" campaign avoided
the divisions that plagued the No on Prop. 209 campaign and presented a
unified front. It also had four times more funding than I-200's
supporters, with key corporate support from Microsoft, Boeing,
Starbucks, Cosco, Weyerhaeuser, and the Seattle Times. Additionally, key
Democratic leaders in the state, such as Governor Gary Locke and U.S.
Senate candidate Patti Murray and even Al Gore spoke against I-200. The
media and educational materials were professional and conveyed their
intended message to white women.
It is instructive to compare the Asian Pacific American (APA)
response to Proposition 209. Ward Connerly and his forces used APAs as
the poster children for affirmative action victimization, in part, to
head off charges of racism by putting a face of color on the movement.
Indeed, contrary to the data showing white women were the primary
beneficiaries of Washington's affirmative action program, the stakes for
APAs in California's affirmative action programs were much more
equivocal. In addition, intense media coverage sensationalized socalled
APA victims of affirmative action and played to the myth of APAs as a
"model minority" whose interests diverged from other groups of
Despite all of this, a Los Angeles Times poll found that 61% of APAs
voted against the anti-affirmative action measure. In a poll undertaken
by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in conjunction with
University of California at Los Angeles social scientists (which was
more extensive than the LA Times by interviewing more southern
California APAs including non-English-speaking ones), APAs were found to
have voted in the same proportion as Latinos against Prop 209 at 76
percent. African American voters rejected the initiative at 74 percent.
Despite conservatives' deployment of affirmative action as a "wedge
issue" vis-a-vis the APA community, and despite the fact that APAs
do not benefit from many affirmative action programs, APAs
"rejected a narrow conception of self- interest and chose instead a
broader vision of social justice" as UCLA Professor Jerry Kang
observed. So why didn't even a simple majority of white women choose a
broader vision of social justice, especially in light of the clear
economic interests white women had in maintaining such programs?
[a1]. Professor of Law, DePaul University College of Law.