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Affirmative action is such a hot-button subject that even its definition sets off debates. While some consider the policy a necessary remedy for past and current discrimination, and essential to our democracy, others see it as unconstitutional, un-American and intrinsically discriminatory against people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Public opinion on the issue often depends on how the topic is worded and framed in poll questions. Affirmative action for minorities is sometimes lumped together with affirmative action for women, and education programs are sometimes grouped with hiring and employment policies. When asked whether they favor “affirmative action programs for women and minorities,� a majority of Americans (58 percent) said they are in favor, according to a 2001 Gallup poll. (That approval rate increased only slightly from 55 percent in 1995.) But when a question is asked about affirmative action for minorities only, the approval rate tends to be lower.

The debate over affirmative action often revolves around the question of whether or not diversity for its own sake is valuable. According to a 1999 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, a majority of Americans agreed that diversity is a laudable goal, with 54 percent of whites and 90 percent of blacks saying more should be done to integrate schools. (The disparity between blacks' and whites' responses to this question is typical for affirmative action issues, which, not surprisingly, draw more support from blacks than whites.) Interestingly, however, most black parents say school districts that are mostly black should hire teachers regardless of race (77 percent), according to a 1998 Public Agenda poll. Though black and white Americans may agree on the benefits of diversity, they do not see eye to eye on other underlying issues: whether all races should have equal opportunities in education and the workplace, whether affirmative action itself is a “discriminatory� policy and whether people should be compensated for past and current discrimination.

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