Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Racism and Opinion Polling

I don't mean to pick on CNN.com, but I found their coverage of this poll on racism interesting.

The writer seems surprised that, while many Americans believe that our society is racist, and find this troubling, few people admit to being racist themselves. A sizable majority of those polled believe that racism is either a "very serious" or "somewhat serious" problem, but only "about one out of eight" consider themselves racist.

I, for my part, am surprised by the surprise, not the numbers. I suppose the numbers might seem odd or irrational, in the same way that it's odd and irrational that the vast majority of Americans consider themselves above average drivers. It might seem to involve the same sort of contradiction, so that a large percentage of Americans would have to be mistaken, as a matter of logic, about either their own racism or that of our society. But racism is a far more complex phenomenon than this, I think.

The term racism means not only individual attitudes about "the races" in the abstract but a whole system of enforced inequality. When we are asked whether we ourselves are racist, we usually interpret the question as being about our individual attitudes. And few of us openly believe, even privately in our own thoughts, that we harbor negative views about other races. Nonetheless, most of us, in our various ways--which can be unconscious or even unwilling--reinforce systems of racial inequality all the time. Does this mean that we, ourselves, are racist? In one sense, yes, but in another sense, no; and since we find it hard to admit our own faults, it should be unsurprising that we take the question in the way that gets us out of doing so.

According to the poll, 40% of blacks* and only 26% of whites believe that "all or many" whites dislike blacks. I wonder if we can really take this at face value, though. What do these respondents take "disliking blacks" to mean? If I were to have taken this poll, I would have said "all or many" myself. But this is not because I believe that most white people actually take personal issue with blacks per se. (Though of course many or most do take issue with blacks otherwise than per se--with black pop culture, for instance. But that's a whole other issue.) I would submit this answer because I would feel that if I did not, I would be claiming that white racism isn't that big of a deal, when I believe just the opposite. White racism is an enormous problem. I just don't believe that it only or even primarily takes the form of individual racist attitudes. Hence, I have to wonder what this poll can really tell us, since it is unclear what the respondents believe constitutes racism.

At the very least, we can be comforted that most Americans don't buy in to the right wing's decades-long effort to convince us that we live in a post-racist society.

*I don't like using these terms, but all terms like this have their problems; since these are apparently the terms used in the poll, I will use them here.

4 comments:

Michael said...

Wow. I think you could almost make an entire blog out of deconstructing CNN polls. Seriously.

Michael said...

I wonder how often polls on racism are truly anonymous. In face-to-face or telephone surveys, few respondents would be willing to openly admit to even a hint of racist attitudes when they're talking directly to another person. The form of the question can also shape the answer, of course. Abstract questions (like "are you prejudiced against X?") are almost meaningless. Some recent serveys show that few people will admit to a bias against Muslims, but a majority can agree that Muslim cultures tend to be "violent." The best measure of the extent of racism in the U.S. is the socioeconomic status, and growing de facto segregation, of blacks.

Lee said...

Right. The biggest insult in our systemically racist, sexist culture is to be called a racist or to hold prejudices. No one is about to consider the complexity of racism on the phone before immeadiately reacting to the negative, accusatory connotation of the concept. It would have been interesting if partcipants were asked: would you consider yourself a passive racist, active racist, or active antiracist?

Lee said...

Right. The biggest insult in our systemically racist, sexist culture is to be called a racist or to hold prejudices. No one is about to consider the complexity of racism on the phone before immeadiately reacting to the negative, accusatory connotation of the concept. It would have been interesting if partcipants were asked: would you consider yourself a passive racist, active racist, or active antiracist?