Prejudices and Hopes

By Ellen Spears

Vol. 19, No. 1, 1997 pp. 28-29, 31

The personal stories in Will The Circle be Unbroken? remind us how recently American apartheid shed the force of law, and at what costs the changes were extracted. These recollections inevitably lead us to consider how things have changed and to identify the work that remains to be done if we are to create an equal society.

What do Americans today have to say about current racial attitudes?

"It is harder to put away the past than what we are trying to make it. If it was my people that got burned and beaten, their houses burned, it would be hard for me to forget, in just a few years." White man, Raleigh, North Carolina, January, 1996.

"I grew up in Atlanta, and each group knew their place and the limits of social interaction were understood." White man, Gainesville, Georgia, early 1996.

"I am more prejudiced than my parents." Twenty-two-year old white hotel clerk, Atlanta, April, 1996.

"We're not as prejudiced as we used to be and, hopefully, that trend will continue." White woman, Gainesville, Georgia, January, 1996.

In Atlanta recently to plan a conference on race and region, veteran South-observer John Egerton commented on the persistent problems of race. "What people are looking for is hope and a few tools to build on previous decades of racial progress," he said.

Seeking fresh hope and new tools, SRC conducted in 1996 a national public opinion survey and focus groups to better understand racial attitudes. The quotations at the start of this essay come from four focus groups with white Southerners conducted by John Doble Research Associates. The national telephone poll surveyed 1216 randomly selected adults in September, 1996. A further analysis of the survey data was carried out by Tom Smith, Director of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center. The project is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

We focused on documenting attitudes of white Americans toward the race-based remedies which, when applied, have brought a modicum of progress toward equity for people of color and women. Now these remedies are being withdrawn.

We sought not to shape the outcome, but to step back and listen. What we have heard offers more hope than anticipated. Despite the contemporary assault on racial pluralism, there exists broad public support for measures redressing racial discrimination.

Like current racial attitudes in the United States, the survey results are exceedingly complex and often contradictory. Most people say that much progress has been made in race relations, and most want to reduce racial inequalities.

"But while public support for reducing racial inequality is broadly based, it is not especially deep," says John Doble. "While Americans see racial tensions and racial inequalities as serious social problems," adds Torn Smith, "they do not give these high priority along the spectrum of public concerns."

But the research shows that the American public also does not give high priority to abolishing affirmative action programs. Moreover, in the face of difficult trade-offs, large majorities said they favor a host of remedies--some race-based, such as financial aid for black college students (75 percent) and job training for blacks who lack skills (78 percent); some class-based, such as tax breaks to low-income families for college tuition (84 percent); and some anti-discrimination measures, such as tough legal action against companies practicing discrimination in hiring and promotions (71 percent).

"Despite the low priority they give racial matters, Americans are troubled by the state of race relations," says Smith. "Few people think that America is a color-blind society in which prejudice and discrimination no longer prevail."

The chasm dividing the views of contemporary black and Hispanic Americans from those of white people is evident on various measures. "Most white Americans said black people do not face a great deal of racial discrimination in employment, education, housing or political representation," notes Doble. "For example, 61 percent of African Americans say blacks face a great deal of discrimination compared to 27 percent of whites."

Among minority groups, black people are seen as facing the most discrimination, with 32 percent of all respondents saying there is a great deal of discrimination and 51 percent more saying there is some discrimination. Twenty-seven percent say that there is a great deal of discrimination against American Indians, 24 percent against Hispanics, 19 percent against women, 14.5 percent against Asians, and 14 percent against whites.

Defining affirmative action

Public opinion towards race-based governmental policies to address racial inequality defies simple portrayal. "People do not have a position on affirmative action in general, but varying points of view on the many distinct policies that fall under this term," says Smith.

"There is confusion about exactly what the term `affirmative action' means, with upwards of one-third of the public not knowing what the term means and another 22 percent saying it means a quota or forced hiring. Nevertheless," says Doble, "affirmative action should be continued, people said, by a margin of 56 percent to 32 percent.

The data does suggest frames for discussing affirmative action that garner the broadest support. "[S]upport for affirmative action is highly conditional on how the policy is presented and what steps are actually called for," says Smith. "Support is greatest when measures emphasize equal opportunity, reject the use of quotas, highlight women, and stress the qualifications of members of the targeted group." Support is weakest when measures are described as quotas or preferential treatment, mention only racial minorities, and refer to possible discrimination against whites or white men.

While differences between attitudes in the South and the rest of the country persist, explains Doble, "they are far less prominent than in the past." For example, residents of the South and Northeast are just as likely to favor affirmative action (57 percent), though Midwesterners are more likely to show favor (61 percent). Those in the West are least likely (34 percent).

In the political arena, three out of four Americans believe it is in the best interests of the country if our elected officials reflect the racial and ethnic background of the entire population. And, if the failure to create minority majority districts were to lead to a sharp decline in the number of black members of Congress, people favor drawing districts that provide opportunities to minority voters by a margin of 58 to 29 percent.

Racial attitudes are more subject to change than one might expect, a fact that other researchers have noted. Given additional information about the impact of eliminating remedies to discrimination, opinions do change, researchers noted. For example, while only 44 percent of Americans favored the idea of reserving college openings for black students, people changed their minds and gave the proposal majority support (65 percent), if not doing so would mean black students will be badly underrepresented.

Opinion research should never be viewed as defining the boundaries of the possible; it was precisely by challenging the confines of public opinion and policy that the civil rights movement brought progress. More recently, Duke opponents in the 1991 Louisiana governor's race, chose to ignore pollsters recommendations that he be challenged based on his failure to pay taxes, rather than tackle his white supremacist message head-on.

Nor is public opinion polling unerring as a measure of what people will do in practice. Witness the well-documented (Virginia Gov. Douglas) Wilder Effect in election year polling: voters will tell a pollster they will vote for a black candidate and walk into the voting both and vote for the white one. Nonetheless, analyzing this data in light of other findings, a portrait emerges, useful to those who would work for change.

What the data seem to suggest is a vast middle group willing to be led to oppose or support affirmative action; not a public clamoring for abolition. "Leadership is critical," says John Doble.

"The losses that civil rights in general and affirmative action in particular have suffered result mostly from their defenders being outmaneuvered and outgunned," concludes Tom Smith. "But uprooting bigotry and equalizing opportunities are not easy tasks. Racism is deeply entrenched, group disparities are large, and efforts to alleviate racial inequality are seen by some as antithetical to core American values such as individualism and even equal treatment itself," says Smith.

Whites interviewed in focus groups remember little about segregation from experience or history. "White Americans tend to see the issue of race relations, not in historic terms, but rather through a case-by-case, pragmatic, a historical lens."

Perhaps listening to the local people who made civil rights history recorded in Will The Circle Be Unbroken? can help. Not only do their words provide definition to the recent past, the hope that fueled their efforts--against even greater odds--is needed as we tackle the next great challenges in winning full equality.