WASHINGTON -- Four in five Americans say it's important for colleges to have racially diverse student bodies, but only half think affirmative action still is needed to help blacks, Hispanics and other minorities, an Associated Press poll found.
Blacks and whites have dramatically different views about how to achieve diversity, says the poll, conducted for the AP by ICR/International Communications Research of Media, Pa. A slight majority in the overall poll think affirmative action programs still are necessary, 51 percent to 43 percent. Among blacks, 89 percent think it's necessary.
About six in 10 young adults in the poll, from 18 to 34 years old, said affirmative action is still needed.
Thomas Robinson, a retired school administrator from Woodsfield, Ohio, offers a glimpse into the mixed emotions many whites have on the issue. He thinks the country has overcome much of the racism from past days but is not yet close to eliminating it.
But he does not support affirmative action.
"At one time it was needed, but I think it should be abolished," said Robinson. "Whites are losing out, because affirmative action bumps them out."
Affirmative action is getting its biggest legal test in a quarter-century, a challenge to admissions policies at the University of Michigan and its law school that is before the Supreme Court. The case will be argued April 1, with a decision expected by summer.
The case marks the court's first statement on racial preference programs in academic admissions since the 1978 Bakke case, which affirmative action critics and backers alike say muddied the waters.
In that case, the court voted 5-4 to outlaw racial quotas in university admissions, but left room for race to be a factor considered in admissions. Michigan and other public universities have used the ruling to design programs that can help minorities who might be rejected if only test scores and grades were considered.
Most in the poll, 80 percent, said diverse student populations are important for colleges. Most blacks and whites said it was important. Half in the overall poll said it was very important.
"I think it's very important so we can learn from one another," Katy Dominy, 22, said of diversity at colleges. "We can learn many things from people of other countries that you can't get out of a textbook."
Like many young adults, she thinks affirmative action should be continued.
"It's far from being equal in America," said the white medical assistant from Sweet Home, Ore. "You do see whites get better jobs, higher pay just because of the way they look."
Support for affirmative action is hard to measure because even a small change in the emphasis of a poll question can bring dramatically different results.
When people were asked in the AP poll if they thought programs should be continued that give "advantages and preferences" to blacks, Hispanics and other minorities in hiring, promotions and college admissions, 53 percent said yes. Another 35 percent said those programs should be abolished.