October 8, 1995 in Nation/World

Poll: Misconceptions Fueling Racial Tensions Survey Finds Whites Believe Blacks Are Better Off Than They Really Are

Washington Post

A majority of white Americans have fundamental misconceptions about the economic circumstances of black Americans, according to a new national survey, with most saying that the average black is faring as well or better than the average white in such specific areas as jobs, education and health care.

That’s not true. Government statistics show that whites, on average, earn 60 percent more than blacks, are far more likely to have medical insurance and more than twice as likely to graduate from college.

Most of those surveyed, regardless of race, also greatly overestimated the number of minority Americans in the United States. Most whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asian Americans said the black population, which is about 12 percent, was twice that size. Those whites with the most inaccurate ideas about the size of the minority populations were the most likely to say that further increases would be bad for the country.

“There is real meaning, substantive meaning in these numbers,” said Richard Neimi, a political scientist at the University of Rochester who has studied the relationship between knowledge and attitudes. “People do misunderstand what the country is like. They overestimate. … And it is not a big leap to imagine that this may well affect the way people think about minorities, that it may lead to this idea that the country is being overrun.”

These misperceptions were one finding of a recent national telephone survey sponsored by The Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University, the first in a series of polls that will explore how much Americans know and how it may affect the way they think about themselves and their country.

A total of 1,970 randomly selected Americans were interviewed, including 802 whites, 474 blacks, 352 English-speaking Asians, and 252 Spanish and English-speaking Hispanics. The remainder were of other races or declined to identify their race.

Overall, the survey found that Asian Americans generally were closer to whites on many but not all racial issues, while Hispanics were closer to black views.

Pessimism united the races. A majority said they feel the American Dream is fading for them and for their children. Good jobs, they said, are harder to find. So is decent housing. Schools are getting worse, not better. Those in America’s growing black middle class said they felt particularly vulnerable, expressing fears that tough times and discrimination could wash away their gains.

Regardless of race, an overwhelming majority agreed that merit - not diversity - should decide who is hired, promoted and admitted to college. No such consensus emerged, however, about the value of integration in workplaces, neighborhoods and schools. Half of each group said it was important; half said it wasn’t.

The sharpest divisions occurred in the way whites and blacks view the world. Simply put, a majority of whites said they believed that many blacks have achieved equality with whites on the cornerstone issues that gave momentum to the civil rights movement more than 30 years ago. Most blacks, in stark contrast, said they believe that racism and discrimination have been on the rise in the past decade.

For example, 68 percent of blacks surveyed said racism is “a big problem in our society today,” but only 38 percent of whites agreed. Similarly, 71 percent of blacks said “past and present discrimination” was a major reason for the economic and social problems facing some African Americans today, but only 36 percent of whites thought this was true.

The gap is so wide that “it really seems that blacks and whites may as well be on two different planets,” said Robert Blendon, a Harvard professor who analyzed the poll’s results. Blendon, who specializes in public policy and survey research, was a member of The Post/Kaiser Foundation/Harvard team that designed the survey.

The racial divide was clearly visible in longer follow-up interviews conducted with survey participants.

Merle Barone, 64, a white retired department store clerk living in Monroeville, Pa., said: “I just feel as though the white person is being blamed for everything that goes wrong with the African Americans. Nobody owes any of us anything. Let’s get on with our lives and make the best of it. … Come on. Everything in the world can’t be racial.”

Whites “do not want to get it,” said Kolima David Williams, 38, a black chemist in Lewisville, Texas. “The reason they don’t acknowledge the problems is because then they would have to admit that the system is corrupt and that it’s working for their benefit and then they would have to give up something they have and would have to share.”

Whites and blacks in the survey tended to agree on what Congress should do - balance the budget, reform welfare, preserve programs that help children - but they disagreed about most issues relating directly to race.

The overwhelming majority of whites said blacks have an equal chance to succeed, that whites bear no responsibility for the problems that blacks face today, that it’s not the federal government’s role to ensure that all races have equal jobs, pay or housing.

In several key areas, the survey found, a majority of whites said blacks are as well or better off than whites. For example, 46 percent of whites said blacks on average held jobs of equal quality to those of whites, 6 percent said blacks had jobs that were “a little better” and another 6 percent said “a lot better.” Conversely, 26 percent of the whites questioned said jobs held by blacks were a “little” worse than those held by whites, 15 percent said they were a “lot worse” and the remainder did not express an opinion.

Large majorities of all the races said the federal government did have a responsibility to make sure that minorities and whites receive equal treatment from the courts and police. They also agreed that the government should assure that all Americans receive equal health care. There was broad consensus that it is the government’s job to ensure that all Americans receive equal educations.

But the consensus collapsed on the question of whether the government has a role in ensuring economic equality. Two-thirds of whites interviewed said the federal government had no responsibility to make certain minorities have jobs and incomes equal to whites, while 7 of 10 blacks surveyed said the federal government had an obligation to equalize outcomes as well as opportunity.

Whites stood alone in their view of black circumstances. Overwhelming majorities of African Americans said blacks were far worse off on each of these measures of economic well-being.

Large majorities of Hispanics and Asian Americans too agreed that blacks were worse off than whites in terms of income, jobs, housing and education. Whites who had not attended college were twice as likely to be misinformed about black circumstances than were whites who had continued their educations. But other factors proved to be only weakly associated or completely unrelated to knowledge levels.

According to the survey, white men were as misinformed as white women, wealthy whites were only slightly more informed than lower-income whites and white Republicans surveyed were slightly more informed than white Democrats. Whites saw black circumstances as being closely tied to a range of beliefs and policy preferences.

Two-thirds of whites - 65 percent - who saw little difference between the social and economic conditions of blacks and whites, also opposed additional federal spending to help low-income minorities. That compared with just 32 percent of those who knew that blacks on average still fared at least somewhat worse than whites on most measures of economic well-being.

Blacks and whites fundamentally disagreed over the causes of the problems facing some African Americans. Seven out of 10 blacks put discrimination and lack of jobs and education at the top of the list, followed closely by lack of jobs and education.

“You look at homelessness, crime and all those things; it’s a cycle, and racism can be factored into all of those things,” said Nadine Etienne, 24, a black clerical worker living in Coconut City, Fla.

But many whites in the survey minimized the importance of any past discrimination and traced the source of black problems to blacks themselves, with 58 percent of whites citing the breakup of the black family as a major cause of problems in the black community.

“They’re not disciplined,” said Richard Oskin, 68, a retiree living in New Kensington, Pa. He described watching a local television news story about a teacher who had been attacked at a local school. “A black kid punched the teacher because he was told to go to the principal, and they were interviewing his mother on television. She said, ‘He got in my boy’s face.’ She was defending him!”

A majority of respondents, regardless of race, shared a common fear: that the future looks bleaker rather than brighter. Nearly 6 out of 10 respondents said they felt further away from achieving the American Dream than they did 10 years ago. Nearly 8 of 10 said they are worried that they won’t have enough money to get by.

“I don’t believe that there is an American Dream anymore,” said Kathy Brown, 47, an escrow mortgage officer living in East Long Beach, Calif. “It has been just blown apart. I mean the world has gone to hell in a handbasket. … Between drugs, gangs, crime on the rampage, there is no such thing as a nice neighborhood anymore.”

“As far as going out and getting a job and staying there for 30 years, that don’t happen anymore, like the way my father retired,” said Marcus Lucero, 32, a machinist living in Niles, Mich. “Those jobs aren’t there.”

“There’s really no decent jobs,” said Violettia Dague, 27, a pillow maker living in Maquoketa, Iowa. “There’s no decent housing and there’s really no money. It’s all gone before you even get it. It’s costing more and more and more every year to send a kid to college. I’m going to have one going in eight years and I don’t even want to think about it.”

Yet these shared anxieties push blacks and whites in opposite directions. Facing increased insecurity and diminishing prospects, the survey suggests that whites have become more hostile to minorities, fearful that more minorities would further erode their diminishing quality of life and far less sympathetic to attempts by the federal government to address problems that the minority poor face.

For blacks, the dimming of the American Dream suggests the need for more government intervention, not less. Blacks who expressed the most concern about the future were far more likely to favor strong government action to counter the economic and social problems facing minorities.

Overall, nearly half of those interviewed - 47 percent - said that tension between the races had increased in the past 10 years, a view shared by 45 percent of all whites, 59 percent of the blacks and pluralities of Hispanics and Asian Americans.

Among the quarter of the sample who reported the most economic distress, 57 percent said racial tension was increasing compared with 39 percent among the quarter who reported the fewest worries about the future.

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