Americans and affirmative action: How the public sees the consideration of race in college admissions, hiring
John Gramlich
The term affirmative action has a long history in the United States. One early reference appears in an executive order that President John F. Kennedy signed in 1961, directing federal contractors to take affirmative action to prevent discrimination against job applicants and employees on the basis of race or other factors.
Today, affirmative action generally refers to programs aimed at boosting educational or employment opportunities for racial and ethnic minority groups that historically have faced discrimination. But the idea has sparked many debates in recent years. Some Americans see these programs as an effective way to address past wrongs and increase racial and ethnic diversity in higher education and the workplace. Others view them as discriminatory in their own right.
Heres a closer look at what recent surveys have found about Americans views of affirmative action, both in a broad sense and in specific settings.
How we did this
Pew Research Center published this backgrounder about affirmative action in the United States because the issue is currently in the news. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide a high-profile case in the weeks ahead about the consideration of race and ethnicity in college admissions decisions.
All public opinion findings cited here come from surveys conducted by the Center or Gallup. Information about the field dates and sample sizes of each survey, as well as additional methodological details, are available by following the links in the text.
For more detailed information about how Americans see the consideration of race and ethnicity in college admissions decisions, read our recent reports: More Americans Disapprove Than Approve of Colleges Considering Race, Ethnicity in Admissions Decisions and
Asian Americans Hold Mixed Views Around Affirmative Action.
How familiar is the public with affirmative action?
In a December 2022 Pew Research Center survey, around eight-in-ten U.S. adults (79%) said they had ever heard the phrase affirmative action.
College graduates, those with higher incomes and older people were among the groups most likely have heard the term. For instance, 90% of Americans 65 and older said they had heard the phrase, compared with 65% of those ages 18 to 29. White and Black adults were also more likely than Asian or Hispanic adults to have heard the phrase.
How do Americans feel about affirmative action?
Public attitudes about affirmative action depend on how Americans are asked about it.
Americans who had heard the phrase affirmative action in the Centers December survey were asked whether they saw it as a good or a bad thing. Among those who had ever heard the term, 36% said affirmative action is a good thing, 29% said it is a bad thing and a third werent sure.
By comparison, Gallup has asked U.S. adults whether they generally favor or oppose affirmative action programs for racial minorities. In 2021, the last time Gallup asked this question, a 62% majority of Americans favored such programs.
Public attitudes about affirmative action can also vary depending on the specific context in which it is being discussed, such as in higher education or the workplace.
How do Americans view race and ethnicity as a factor in college admissions?
A larger share of Americans disapprove than approve of higher education institutions taking race and ethnicity into account when admitting students, according to several recent Center surveys.
In a survey conducted in spring 2023, half of U.S. adults said they disapprove of selective colleges and universities taking race and ethnicity into account in admissions decisions in order to increase racial and ethnic diversity. A third of adults approved of this, while 16% were not sure.
In the same survey, 49% of Americans said the consideration of race and ethnicity makes the overall admissions process less fair, while only 20% said it makes the process fairer. Another 17% said it does not affect the fairness of the admissions process, while 13% said they werent sure.
Other Center surveys have also found more opposition than support for the consideration of race and ethnicity in college admissions decisions.
In the December 2022 survey, for example, 82% of U.S. adults said colleges should not consider race or ethnicity when deciding which students to accept, while only 17% said colleges should take this into account. Americans were far more likely to say that colleges should consider other factors, particularly high school grades and standardized test scores.
How do Americans view race and ethnicity as a factor in hiring?
Most Americans say companies should not take race and ethnicity into account when hiring or promoting workers, according to a 2019 Center survey.
In that survey, 74% of U.S. adults said that, when making decisions about hiring and promotions, companies and organizations should take only a persons qualifications into account, even if it results in less diversity. Around a quarter (24%) said companies and organizations should take a persons race and ethnicity into account in addition to qualifications to increase diversity.
While most Americans disapprove of the consideration of race and ethnicity in hiring and promotion decisions, they still see value in a diverse workplace. Three-quarters of adults said in the 2019 survey that it was very or somewhat important for companies and organizations to promote racial and ethnic diversity in their workplace. Around a quarter (24%) said this was not too or not at all important.
How do Americans view recent efforts related to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace?
While public attitudes on DEI efforts in the workplace are much more positive than negative, a sizeable share of Americans say it is neither good nor bad, according to a February 2023 Center survey of employed Americans.
In the survey, 56% of workers said that, in general, focusing on increasing diversity, equity and inclusion at work is mainly a good thing, while far fewer (16%) said it is a bad thing. Another 28% said it is neither good nor bad.
Still, relatively few workers attached a great deal of importance to diversity in their workplace. Only about a third (32%) said its extremely or very important to them to work somewhere with a mix of employees of different races and ethnicities.
How do attitudes on these topics vary by race and ethnicity?
Racial and ethnic minorities especially Black Americans are more likely than White Americans to support the consideration of race and ethnicity in college admissions and hiring decisions.
In the Centers spring 2023 survey, around half of Black adults (47%) approved of selective colleges considering race and ethnicity in their admissions decisions, compared with 39% of Hispanic adults, 37% of Asian adults and 29% of White adults. In fact, Black adults were the only racial or ethnic group more likely to ap