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White Women and Affirmative Action

 Sumi Cho
excerpted Wrom: 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 color.
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.