Whites More Optimistic Than Blacks On Race Relations In The U.S.

Dec 30, 2014
Originally published on December 30, 2014 3:48 pm

In a Morning Edition interview, NPR's Steve Inskeep asked President Obama if he thinks America has become more racially divided during his administration.

"No, I actually think that it's probably, in its day-to-day interactions, less racially divided," Obama replied, later saying that this year's much-publicized racial incidents have made people feel more divided than they are. (You can read the full transcript here.)

It's not easy to measure just how divided America is, but pollsters have tried for decades.

There's one question Gallup has asked since 1963: "Do you think that relations between blacks and whites will always be a problem for the United States, or that a solution will eventually be worked out?"

The answer has stayed relatively the same since 2008 for about 60 percent of white Americans. They're optimistic — just like half of African-Americans who responded in 2008 and 2013.

Gallup's Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport says even though sentiments don't seem to have shifted during the Obama administration, there remains a significant gap between how whites and blacks perceive race and equality.

"Blacks see a world that has barriers, structural barriers and discrimination. Whites, much less so," Newport explains.

A Different Poll, A Different Answer

"Whites are more optimistic about race relations than blacks are," says Jocelyn Kiley, associate director of research at the Pew Research Center. Since 2007, that pollster has surveyed Americans with this question: "In general, how well do you think blacks and whites get along with each other these days?"

Almost 70 percent of respondents said "very well" or "pretty well" when asked this year, more than a week after protests began in Ferguson, Mo. But that share was seven points lower compared with a 2009 survey.

Still, polls — even those that account for Latinos, Asian-Americans and Native Americans — won't give you the final answer on race relations.

A recent poll by The New York Times and CBS News says race relations have stayed about the same since Obama became president, while a Bloomberg Politics poll says they've gotten worse under the first black president.

'Beyond The Opinion'

"We need to get beyond the opinion, beyond the ideas and really ask, 'How is race really working in terms of allocating power and resources in our society?' " says Ian Haney López, author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class.

He says a more objective way of measuring race relations is to look at how segregated we are as a country through institutions like neighborhoods, schools and workplaces. Haney López, who also teaches law at the University of California, Berkeley, adds that special attention should be paid to the racial makeup of our most elite institutions, including Congress and Fortune 500 companies.

Examining these socioeconomic indicators can tell you a contradicting story about the status of African-Americans today, according to Peniel Joseph, founding director of Tufts University's Center for the Study of Race and Democracy.

"From a privileged perspective, things are, yes, dramatically different," Joseph says. "Those same [black] folks in 1964, even with a Harvard degree, many, many doors of opportunity would be closed. But 50 years later, Obama's the president of the United States. But many, many African-Americans don't have the same access."

Access that, Joseph says, is key to truly understanding race relations today.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Obama sparked widespread disbelief with a statement the other day. We asked if he thinks America has become more racially divided during his administration. The president said no.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I actually think that it's probably, in its day-to-day interactions, less racially divided.

INSKEEP: That statement to NPR News made headlines. This morning, as part of our year-end interview, Obama explains what he meant. He says elsewhere in today's program that this year's much-publicized racial incidents make people feel more divided than they are. So is the president right or wrong? It's not easy to measure just how divided America is. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports on what is known.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: There's one question pollsters at Gallup have asked since 1963.

FRANK NEWPORT: Do you think that relations between blacks and whites will always be a problem for the United States or that a solution will eventually be worked out?

WANG: Editor-in-chief of Gallup, Frank Newport, says the answer has stayed relatively the same since 2008 for about 60 percent of white Americans. They're optimistic, just like half of African-Americans who responded in 2008 and 2013. But Newport says even though sentiments don't seem to have shifted during the Obama administration, there remains a significant gap between how whites and blacks perceive race and equality.

NEWPORT: Blacks see a world that has barriers - structural barriers - and discrimination, whites much less so.

JOCELYN KILEY: Whites are more optimistic about race relations than blacks are. And if you look at other pollsters as well, you see similar trends.

WANG: Jocelyn Kiley is associate director of research at another pollster, the Pew Research Center.

KILEY: We ask, how well do blacks and whites get along with each other these days? Very well, pretty well, not too well or not at all well.

WANG: Almost 70 percent said very or pretty well more than a week after protests began in Ferguson, Missouri. But that share was seven points lower compared to a 2009 survey. Still, polling won't give you the final answer on race relations. According to a recent New York Times-CBS News poll, they've stayed about the same since Obama became president, or, according to Bloomberg Politics, they've gotten worse under the first black president.

IAN HANEY LOPEZ: We need to get beyond the opinions, beyond the ideas and really ask, how is race working in terms of allocating power and resources in our society?

WANG: Ian Haney Lopez, author of "Dog Whistle Politics" teaches law at the University of California Berkeley. He says a more objective way of measuring race relations is to look at how segregated we are as a country.

LOPEZ: And that's to ask about the main institutions in our lives - our neighborhoods, our schools, our jobs.

WANG: Not to mention, Haney Lopez says, our most elite institutions, like Congress and Fortune 500 companies. Peniel Joseph, founding director of Tufts University Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, says these socioeconomic indicators can tell you a contradicting story about the status of African-Americans today.

PENIEL JOSEPH: From a privileged perspective, things are, yes, dramatically different. Those same folks in 1964 even with a Harvard degree, many, many doors of opportunity would be closed. But 50 years later, Obama's the president of the United States. But many, many African-Americans don't have the same access.

WANG: Access that Joseph says is key to truly understanding race relations today. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.