IF ever there was an issue on which polling data are affected by the wording of the poll-taker's questions, it would appear to be affirmative action. We keep hearing that ''polls show'' that majorities oppose ''affirmative action.''
But a USA Today-CNN-Gallup poll, results of which have been circulated by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, found strong public support for ''affirmative action programs for women and minorities'': 55 percent of respondents were found to ''favor'' such programs, and 34 percent to ''oppose'' them. This poll is different, the conference says, because it didn't use the ''loaded word 'preference.' ''
Now the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights is not exactly a distinterested party here. But this poll has some telling findings.
Of all whites polled, 12 percent said that because of affirmative-action programs, they had at some point not been offered a job that went to a member of a racial minority. But 33 percent of all blacks polled said that because of racial discrimination, they had at some point not been offered a job that went to a white person. (For white men and black men, the corresponding numbers were 15 percent and 42 percent.)
Of men polled, 8 percent claimed affirmative action had cost them a job that went to a woman, whereas 19 percent of women claimed discrimination against women had cost them a job that went to a man.
By strong majorities, those surveyed said that they had not seen, in their own workplaces, affirmative action putting women or blacks into positions for which they were not qualified. When asked, ''Have you personally ever thought that a well-qualified person at your workplace was hired or promoted as a direct result of affirmative action, and probably would not have been hired without affirmative action?'' a similarly large number (75 percent) said ''no.''
This last point seems to suggest that affirmative-action programs are ineffectual, rather than that they are controlling our lives. Still, this remains an issue on which ''the public is split and confused,'' says pollster Stan Greenberg.
One way out of the confusion is to stop seeing equality of opportunity, broadly defined, as a zero-sum game, and to see it rather as an expansion of everyone's opportunity. Certain groups may gain or lose ground relative to the whole, but that doesn't mean an absolute loss of earnings or opportunity.
Yes, competition for jobs is keen, and those who lack skills and training need to get them to compete in today's marketplace. But the United States is a vast country. New companies are springing up all the time, ready to make hires. New colleges, universities, and professional schools are educating their legions on sites where there was only cow pasture not long ago. Much legislative and regulatory action goes into requiring people to do, in the short term, things that are in their long-term interest anyway.
The bank forced to stop ''redlining'' and make mortgage loans in neighborhoods where it hasn't felt comfortable is being forced to develop new markets and serve new customers -- which will benefit it in the long run. Corporations that learned the hard way to open their doors to a more diverse work force are now finding that work force helps them serve a more diverse customer base than they ever imagined a few years ago. Police forces required to bring in more minority candidates are finding themselves more respected and effective in their communities.
Is it really a zero-sum game? Yes, if there's one position to fill, you and I both want it, I get it, and you don't. But one of the lessons of public policy, and elsewhere in life, is the need to beware of false choices. Most of the time it's not either/or. Excluding you is probably not the price of including me.