If, for example, affirmative action simply means, in a generic sense, giving a leg up to blacks and Latinos in hiring and college admissions as a way to redress prior racial injustice, the American people are generally for it.
When it means certain people are given preference in hiring or promotions or college admissions because of their race, with a specific number in mind at which the policy is considered a success, and someone else who is equally or better qualified may lose out -- people oppose it.
Passions run high on both sides. There is too much at stake for it to be otherwise. In the current construct, any tip in the current balance means some people have a lot to lose.
Make no mistake: there is money at stake for unions and contractors and lawyers and universities and interest groups of different stripes and others anytime a pending legal decision threatens to change the way affirmative action is applied under law.
It is a thorny political issue and this week President George W. Bush waded right into the middle of it. His administration filed a brief in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court involving admission polices and the pursuit of a diverse student body at the University of Michigan.
The president said Michigan's admissions programs "amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students, based solely on race."
He calls that unconstitutional, an opinion that has considerable support. The federal courts and Congress have repeatedly said quotas are not permitted. But the line is blurry.
The courts have said race can be a consideration but cannot be the only consideration. Targets are OK but quotas are not. The rules are, perhaps deliberately, ambiguous.
The reason may be good, old-fashioned politics. There are some who derive profit, power or prominence by exploiting America's racial divisions. They keep hate, rather than hope, alive for many of the very same people whose interests they profess to have in mind.
A number of critics predictably lunged at the president after he made his remarks.
Julian Bond, who served in the Georgia legislature as a Democrat and is now board chairman of the NAACP, said Bush "came down on the wrong side of the struggle over justice in higher education."
"Affirmative action is the just spoils of a righteous war, won at great cost and intended to heal division and end centuries of discrimination," Bond said.
Except, as the "just spoils" observation should indicate, affirmative action, racial preference or whatever the term does more to keep America apart than it does to bring it together. For, as we know, the spoils of war are taken from the losers by the winners by force.
It creates hard feelings among those who lose out when a job or promotion or contract or place in law school is at stake. It provides an easy out, a way for people to blame someone else rather than themselves if they may come up short sometime in life.
It also creates, as Bush has repeatedly observed, "the soft bigotry of low expectations." There are too many talented, able and smart people of all races living and working in America to allow any of them to be stigmatized, internally and otherwise, with the thought that their success in life is due to something other than merit, ability and, as has always been true, a little bit of luck.
Not only does affirmative action divide the country, it keeps different ethnic and racial groups pitted against each other. Every University of Michigan affirmative action on behalf of a student from one racial group means one less place available to a student from a different group.
In the zero sum game of university admissions, as in other parts of life, one cannot win without another losing, causing deeper rifts between different ethnic groups as they fight over the same slice of the pie.
Some have said that the president's decision to enter the Michigan case is a Hobson's choice for Bush, because it will win him the support of his base while losing support among Latinos. These critics believe Latinos, like blacks, reflexively support affirmative action and racial preference because it means a better deal for them.
In fact the numbers do not support that conclusion. Support for affirmative action among Latinos, and among blacks for the matter, is mixed -- much more so than the 9-to-1 spilt against Bush by black voters in the 2000 presidential election.
The president is holding firm to his belief that people should not be judged solely on the basis of their skin color but on their character, their ability and their merit -- a view that means death for the pro-affirmative action lobby that has so much to say about racial policy in America.
What Bush is saying, in essence, is that the "I got mine" ethic needs to be replaced, and soon, so that we may all come together as one people, one country.
(The Peter Principles is a regular column on politics, culture and the media by UPI Political Analyst Peter Roff.)