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Keywords:

  • Affirmative action;
  • conservatism;
  • racial policy;
  • merit;
  • deservingness;
  • racial attitudes;
  • stereotypes

Supporters and opponents of affirmative action are often characterized as debating about a single, consensually understood type of affirmative action. However, supporters and opponents instead may have different types of policies in mind when thinking about affirmative action and may actually agree on specific manifestations of affirmative action policies more than is commonly believed. A survey conducted using a student sample and a sample from the broader Chicago-area community showed that affirmative action policies can be characterized into merit-violating versus merit-upholding manifestations. Supporters of affirmative action in general were more likely to think of affirmative action in its merit-upholding manifestations, whereas opponents were more likely to think of the merit-violating manifestations. However, both supporters and opponents showed more support for merit-upholding rather than merit-violating manifestations of affirmative action. The same pattern of results was upheld even when splitting the samples into those who endorsed negative racial attitudes versus those who did not, suggesting that even those who may be considered racist will endorse affirmative action policies that uphold merit values. The results are discussed in terms of the importance of clarifying the political discourse about what affirmative action is and what it is designed to do.