The President's Initiative on Race

"What Do We Think about Race?"
Dr. Lawrence D. Bobo

I. Introduction

My task, in a sense, is to answer the question of whether America is moving toward becoming a genuinely "color-blind" society or remains a society deeply polarized by race. I approach this task as a social scientist who has long studied the social psychology of race in America. Studies of racial attitudes in the U.S. present a difficult puzzle. On the one hand, several recent studies emphasize the steadily improving racial attitudes of white Americans, especially in terms of their attitudes toward African Americans. These attitudinal trends are reinforced by many more tangible indicators, most notably the size, relative security, and potentially growing influence of the black middle class. On the other hand, there is evidence of persistent negative stereotyping of racial minorities, evidence of widely divergent views of the extent and importance of racial discrimination to modern race relations, and evidence of deepening feelings of alienation among black Americans. These more pessimistic attitudinal trends are reinforced by such tangible indicators as the persistent problem of racial segregation of neighborhoods and schools, discrimination in access to housing and employment, innumerable everyday acts of racial bias and numerous signs of the gulf in perception that often separates black and white Americans

My remarks today will touch on five aspects of the research on racial attitudes: (1) the predominant and important trend toward positive change concerning the goals of integration and equal treatment; (2) the evident difficulty of moving from these goals to concrete support for change in social policy and individual living conditions; (3) the problem of persistent stereotyping; (4) the differing views of racial discrimination; and (5) the possible deepening of black alienation. Wherever possible I emphasize trends. It is essential to have a sense of whether and how much things have changed if we are to make sense of where we stand today or might head in the future. Although my remarks will emphasize what we know about the views of white Americans toward African Americans, I will cast a multiracial scope at several important points.

By way of foreshadowing what is to come let me say that we now have a deeply rooted national consensus on the ideals of racial equality and integration. These high ideals founder on racial differences in preferred levels of integration; they founder on sharp racial differences in beliefs about racial discrimination; they founder on the persistence of negative racial stereotypes; and they result in policy stagnation and mutual misunderstanding. Although America has turned away from Jim Crow racism, it heads into an uncertain future.

II. New Principles of Equality and Integration

The single clearest trend in studies of racial attitudes has involved a steady and sweeping movement toward endorsing the principles of racial equality and integration. When major national assessments of racial attitudes were first conducted in the 1940s, clear majorities of white Americans advocated that we be a society that segregated its schools, neighborhoods, and public transportation, that practiced job discrimination against African Americans, and that drew a sharp line against the possibility of mixed or interracial marriages. Thus, in the early 1940s, 68% of white Americans expressed the view that black and white school children should go to separate schools, 54% felt that public transportation should be segregated, and 54% felt that whites should receive preference over blacks in access to jobs. By the early 1960s each of these attitudes had declined substantially. So much so that the questions on public transportation and access to jobs were dropped from national surveys in the early 1970s: virtually all white Americans endorsed the idea that transportation should be integrated and that access to jobs should be equal without regard to race. The issue of integrated schools remained more divided. However, the trend here has been equally steady. Thus, by 1995 fully 96% of white Americans expressed the view that white and black school children should go to the same schools.

Three points about this transformation of basic principles or norms that should guide race relations bear noting. First, there is some variation across domains of life in the degree of endorsement of the principle of racial equality and integration. In general, the more public and impersonal the arena, the greater the evidence of the movement toward endorsing ideals of integration and equality. Thus, support for unconstrained access to housing for blacks has also undergone tremendous positive change, but still lags behind the case of schools or jobs. More telling, willingness to allow racially mixed marriages still encounters some resistance, with 1 in 5 whites as recently as 1990 supporting laws that would ban such marriages. And an even higher fraction, as the figure shows, personally disapproves of such marriages.

Second, African Americans have long rejected segregation. Although the available pool of data for tracing long-term trends in the views of African Americans is much more limited than that for whites, it is clear that the black population has overwhelming favored integrated schools and neighborhoods and desired equal access to employment opportunity.

Third, the positive trend on these principles across the domains of schools, public transportation, jobs, housing, politics, and even intermarriage is steady and unabated. Despite intense discussion of a possible "racial backlash" in the 1960s in response to black protests, or in the 1970s in response to school busing efforts and the implementation of affirmative action, or even more recently in the wake of events such as the riots in Los Angeles in 1992, the support for principles of racial equality and integration has been sweeping and robust. So much so, that it is reasonable to describe it as a change in fundamental norms with regard to race.

III. The Complexity of Changing How We Live and What We Want Government to Do

Unfortunately, it is not possible to infer from the tremendous positive change on principles of equality and integration that either public policy or the texture of day-to-day life for most Americans would quickly come to mirror this apparent consensus. Consider first the issue of integrating neighborhoods and schools. It is clear that numbers matter, as the figure shows. When surveys ask whites about their willingness to live in integrated areas or to send their children to integrated schools, as the proportion of blacks rises the willingness to enter a situations falls. Surveys have documented a steady increase in the openness to both residential and school integration. So much so, that almost no whites object to having a black neighbor or to sending their own children to an integrated school. But objections rise considerably as the number of black students grows.

The meaning of integration also differs for Blacks and Whites. It is clear that most whites prefer to live in overwhelmingly white neighborhoods even though open to having a small number of blacks in their neighborhood. Blacks prefer to be present in substantial numbers, numbers large enough to be uncomfortable in the eyes of most whites and impractical on a large scale basis: it is not possible, given differences in population size, for all blacks to live in a neighborhood that is at least half black.

With respect to public policy issues, we are all aware that there have been longstanding debates over equal opportunity policies and affirmative action. The trend data suggest that there is a significant substantive division in opinion. Programs that are compensatory in nature--that aim to equip minorities to be more effective competitors or that engage in special outreach and recruitment efforts--are reasonably popular. Policies that call for explicit racial preferences have long been unpopular, with the use of quotas rejected by Whites and Blacks alike.

There is, however, a sharp divergence of opinion about affirmative action type policies by race as well. As the next two figures, drawing on data from surveys conducted in Los Angeles, illustrate. Blacks but also Latinos tend to support affirmative action type policies whether aimed at improving training and competitive resources of minority group members or calling for "special preferences" in hiring and promotion. But a majority of whites support the more compensatory policies while resisting strongly "preferential" policies.

IV. Persistent Negative Stereotyping

A major piece of the puzzle behind the limits to integration and to social policy with respect to race lies in the problem of anti-minority, especially anti-Black stereotypes. There is evidence that negative racial stereotypes of minority groups, especially of blacks and Latinos, remain common among whites. There is also evidence that minority groups may also stereotype one another, though the story here is a good deal more complicated. In a major national survey conducted in 1990, well over 50% of whites rated Blacks and Latinos as less intelligent. Similar proportions rated Blacks and Latinos as prone to violence. Well over two-thirds rated blacks and Latinos as actually preferring to live off of welfare.

One example of such patterns is shown in the figure. Substantial fractions of whites rated Blacks and Latinos as less intelligent, as preferring to live off of welfare, and as hard to get along with socially. Research suggests that these stereotypes differ in several important ways from stereotypes that were prevalent in the past. First, they are much more likely to be understood as the product of environmental and group cultural traditions than was true in the past. In the past, they were unequivocally taken as the product of natural endowment. Second, there is growing evidence that many whites are aware of traditional negative stereotypes of Blacks, anyone immersed in American culture would be, but personally reject the negative stereotype and its implications. The problem is that in many face-to-face interactions, the old cultural stereotype controls perception and behavior. The end result is bias and discrimination against minorities.

V. Disagreement on the Prevalence of Racial Discrimination

In many ways, the centerpiece of the modern racial divide comes in the evidence of sharply divergent beliefs about the current level, effect, and very nature of discrimination. Blacks and Latinos, and many Asian Americans as well, feel it and perceive it in most domains of life. Many Whites acknowledge that some discrimination remains, yet they tend to down play its contemporary importance. The figure gives an example of these perceptions.

However, minorities not only perceive more discrimination, they see it as more "institutional" in character. Many Whites tend to think of discrimination as either mainly an historical legacy of the past or as the idiosyncratic behavior of the isolated bigot. In short, to White America, the officers who beat Abner Louima constitute a few bad apples. To African Americans, they are the tip of the iceberg. White America regards the Texaco tapes as shocking. To Black America the tapes merely reflect the ones who got caught.

But the difference in perception cuts deeper than this. For African Americans and Latinos (and to a lesser extent among Asians) modern racial bias and discrimination are central factors in the problem of minority disadvantage. While many Whites recognize that discrimination plays some part in higher rates of unemployment, poverty, and a range of hardships in life that minorities often face, the central cause is usually understood to be the level of effort and cultural patterns of the minority groups themselves. For minorities, especially African Americans, if race remains a problem it is because of something about how our institutions operate. For whites, it is mainly something about minorities themselves.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the sharp divide over the understanding and experience of racial discrimination to the present day racial impasse in America.

VI. Deepening Pessimism and Alienation

In many corners there is a feeling of pessimism about the state of race relations. A 1997 survey conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic research found that only 2 in 5 blacks rated relations in their community as "excellent" or "good" and that more than 1 in 5 rated race relations as "poor." In contrast, 59% of whites rated local race relations as "excellent" or "good" though better than 1 in ten rated them as "poor." The results of a recent Gallup survey are, in respects, more pessimistic. There, roughly a third of blacks and whites described race relations as having gotten worse in the past year. What is more, 58% of blacks and 54% whites expressed the view that "relations between blacks and whites will always be a problem for the United States."

This problem takes the form of particularly acute cynicism and alienation among black Americans, though there are some signs of frustrations among Latinos and some Asians as well. Among blacks, University of Chicago political scientist Michael Dawson's National Black Politics Survey, conducted in 1993, found that 86% of African Americans agreed with the statement that "American society just hasn't dealt fairly with black people." Fifty-seven percent of African Americans rejected the idea that "American society has provided black people a fair opportunity to get ahead in life." And 81% agreed with the idea that "American society owes black people a better chance in life than we currently have."

A major survey of Los Angeles county residents that I conducted in 1992 shows that while blacks expressed the highest and most consistently alienated views, an important fraction of the Latino and Asian population do so as well. Thus, for example, 64% of Latinos in L.A. County and 42% of Asians agreed with the idea that their groups were owed a better chance in life. This places these two groups in between the high sense of deprivation observed among African Americans and the essentially non-existent feeling of deprivation observed among whites.

The concern over black cynicism, however, is acute for two reasons. First, there are signs that the feelings of alienation and deprivation are greatest in an unexpected place: among the black middle class, especially so among well-educated and high-earning African Americans. Second, there is a concern that these feelings of alienation and deprivation may be contributing to a weakening commitment to the goal of racial integration. Among the potentially discouraging signs in this regard are a recent significant rise in the number of African Americans who think it is time to form a separate national political party. The 1993 National Black Politics Survey showed that this figure was at 50%, up substantially from about 30% in 1984. In addition, African Americans continue to feel a strong connection between the fate of the group as a whole and that of the individual African American. Thus, the 1993 National Black Politics Study shows a slow but steady rise in the proportion of African Americans who expressed the view that there was a strong connection between their fate as individuals and the fate of the group as a whole. This tendency is especially pronounced among highly educated African Americans.

VII. Conclusions and Implications

The glass is half full or half empty, depending upon what one chooses to emphasize. If one compares the racial attitudes prevalent in the 1940s with those commonly observed today, it is easy to be optimistic. A nation once comfortable as a deliberately segregationist and racially discriminatory society has not only abandoned that view, but positively endorses the goal of racial integration and equal treatment. There is no sign whatsoever of retreat from this ideal despite many events that many thought would call it into question. The magnitude, steadiness, and breadth of this change should be lost on no one.

The death of Jim Crow Racism has left us in an uncomfortable place, however, a place that I sometimes call a state of Laissez Faire racism. We have high ideals, but openness to very limited amounts of integration at the personal level remains; there is political stagnation over some types of affirmative action , quite negative stereotypes of racial minorities persist, and a wide gulf in perceptions regarding the importance of racial discrimination remains. The level of misunderstanding and miscommunication is thus easy to comprehend.

The positive patterns in attitude and belief have important parallels in more concrete social trends. Two examples. Matching the broad shift in attitudes on the principle of residential integration and openness to at least small amounts of real racial mixing in neighborhoods is borne out in demographic data showing modest declines in racial residential segregation in most metropolitan areas and in the growing suburbanization of Blacks, Latinos and Asians. In addition, the greater tolerance for interracial marriages, including Black-white marriages, is mirrored in the significant rise in the number of such unions. (Though we should always bear in mind that attitudes are but one important input to behavior. Most centrally, situational constraints, such as equal opportunity mandates and anti-discrimination laws or the expectations of significant others in our lives, affect whether or not and when there is a correspondence between individual attitude and behavior. And, of course, racial segregation remains a severe problem, and Black-White intermarriages are the least common form of racial intermarriage for Whites.)

Is it possible to change attitudes? The record of change that I have reviewed makes it plain that attitudes can change and in important ways. Education and information can help. The better educated, especially those who have gone onto college, are typically found to express more positive racial attitudes. It is also clear that many Americans hold inaccurate beliefs about the size of racial minority groups and about such social conditions as group differences in the level of welfare dependency. However, education and informational campaigns are unlikely to do the job that remains ahead of us if we are to genuinely become one society in the next century. Attitudes are most likely to change when the broad social conditions that create and reinforce certain types of outlooks change and when the push to make such change comes from a united national leadership that speaks with moral conviction of purpose. That is, it is essential to speak to joblessness and poverty in the inner city, to failing schools, and to myriad forms of racial bias and discrimination that people of color often experience, but have not yet effectively communicated to their fellow White Americans.

To pose the question directly: Are we moving toward a color-blind society or toward deepening racial polarization? America is not a color-blind society. We stand uncomfortably at a point of defeating Jim Crow racism, but unsure whether to, on the one hand, through benign neglect, allow the current inequalities and polarizations to take deeper root, or, on the other hand, to face directly and proactively the challenges of bias, miscommunication and racism that remain.

As a people, we feel quite powerfully the tug, the exhortation of Dr. King's dream to become a nation that embodies the ideals of racial equality and integration. We appear to be at a point of uncertainty, misunderstanding and re-assessment. It is important to seize upon the steady commitment to ideals of racial equality and integration. The risk of failing to do so, is that a new, free-market ideology of racism--laissez faire racism--may take hold, potentially worsening an already serious racial divide.

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