January 21, 2008
Written by C.N.
As our nation celebrates the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. today, it’s appropriate that we reflect on the state of his quest toward racial harmony and equality in contemporary American society.
Specifically, in this day and age, racial/ethnic relations seem to influence many of the most controversial and hotly-debated issues in modern American society. This includes immigration (especially illegal immigration), racist imagery such as recent noose incidents, and most recently, issues surrounding Barack Obama’s campaign.
With that in mind, I think it’s useful for us — or at least for me as a sociologist — to try to take a step back and look at these issues from a more institutional or contextual perspective. In other words, to understand each of these specific issues that I just mentioned better, I think it’s useful for us to first understand the social context which forms the framework within which each issue unfolds.
With that in mind, the results from two national-level surveys have just been released to try to give us this larger, societal picture of the current state of racial/ethnic relations. Specifically, studies conducted by the Pew Research Center and New America Media each provide data and insight on attitudes toward and between different racial/ethnic groups in America. So let’s take a look at each to see what they say and how they can help us understand American racial/ethnic relations better.
The Pew Research Center study generally concludes that among Whites, Blacks, and Latinos, large majorities of each group report that they get along “pretty well” or “very well” with members of the other groups. However, there are some differences — Black and Latino seem to be slightly less positive:
While 70% of blacks say blacks and Hispanics get along very or pretty well, just 57% of Hispanics agree. Meantime, some 30% of Hispanics say blacks and Hispanics get along not too or not at all well; this is the most negative assessment registered by any group in the survey about any inter-group relationship.
It’s important to note however, that although this 57% of Latinos who report good relations with Blacks is lower than what Blacks report themselves, it is still a numerical majority.
The Pew study also reports that generally speaking, those with higher education and income tend to report better cross-racial relations. Perhaps surprisingly, Blacks living in rural areas tend to report better relations with Whites than Blacks who live in urban or suburban areas. Also, there were no significant differences in terms of attitudes by region of country. Finally and perhaps on a discouraging note, younger Blacks report worse relations with Whites than older Blacks.
In general, I found the Pew study informative but with one significant drawback — they chose to exclude Asian Americans from the study.
In my opinion, this omission is absolutely inexcusable in this day and age when the Asian American population is close to 15 million, in which Asian Americans are some of the most socioeconomically successful ethnic groups in the U.S., and when Asian Americans increasingly make up large proportions of the population of many states and majorities in many cities.
I am extremely disappointed that an organization as otherwise professional and well-regarded as the Pew Research Center chose to exclude Asian Americans from this important study.
To remedy that, let’s turn to the other national study on racial attitudes, from New America Media (NAM), in conjunction with Bendixen & Associates. This survey included Asian Americans, Latinos, and African Americans, but because it focused on attitudes among and between racial/ethnic minority groups, the study did not include Whites.
Similar to the Pew study, I am a little disappointed that Whites were not included, but in relative terms, there is already a sufficient level of racial attitude data that exists among Whites, but much less so when it comes to data on racial minorities, especially Asian Americans.
Also, I am impressed that the NAM study was conducted in multiple languages to maximize its overall validity and generalizeability. A Powerpoint presentation of their major findings is also available for download. To summarize, the study notes:
[The poll] uncovered serious tensions among these ethnic groups, including mistrust and significant stereotyping, but a majority of each group also said they should put aside differences and work together to better their communities. . . .
Predominantly immigrant populations – Hispanics and Asians – expressed far greater optimism about their lives in America, concluding that hard work is rewarded in this society. By contrast, more than 60% of the African Americans polled do not believe the American Dream works for them. . . .
[Regarding tensions and mistrust], 44% of Hispanics and 47% of Asians are “generally afraid of African Americans because they are responsible for most of the crime.” Meanwhile, 46% of Hispanics and 52% of African Americans believe “most Asian business owners do not treat them with respect.” And half of African Americans feel threatened by Latin American immigrants because “they are taking jobs, housing and political power away from the Black community.” . . .
[Nonetheless], the poll found “a shared appreciation” for each group’s cultural and political contributions. “Hispanics and Asians recognize that African Americans led the fight for civil rights and against discrimination, forging a better future for the other groups,” she said.
“Asian Americans and African Americans say Hispanic culture has enriched the quality of their lives. African Americans and Hispanics perceive Asian Americans as role models when it comes to family and educational values.”
Generally, I am saddened — but entirely shocked — to hear that apparently, there is still a lot of racial tension and suspicion between Asian Americans, Latinos, and African Americans. I agree that important issues need to be addressed for these stereotypes to eventually be disproved.
Nonetheless, I would point out two points in regard to this NAM survey. The first is that as the Pew Research Center study generally showed, more educated and higher-income respondents are likely to be more positive about cross-racial attitudes and experiences.
With that in mind, it appears that the NAM survey did not disaggregate its responses by social class, instead lumping everyone from all kinds of educational, income, and occupational backgrounds together within each racial/ethnic group. This is disappointing and unfortunately, distorts the findings a little bit.
But perhaps more importantly, I am disappointed in some of the wording of the questions in the NAM survey. For example, it asked Asian and Latino respondents whether they agreed with the statement “I am generally afraid of African Americans because they are responsible for most of the crime.”
I must say that I finding that wording to be a biased, leading, and confusing, based on conventional sociological methodologies and guidelines of creating empirically valid surveys. First of all, it asks two questions in one — whether they are afraid of African Americans, and two, whether they agree that African Americans commit most of the crime. One of the key rules about questionnaire design is that you should only ask one question at a time.
Second, presenting the statement that African Americans “are responsible for most of the crime” is leading — it should have just asked the question, “Do you agree or disagree that African Americans are responsible for most crimes committed” would have been less leading and more direct. The distinction between the two is subtle, but empirically valid.
Another example of a poorly-worded and misleading question is “Latin American immigrants are taking away jobs, housing and political power from the Black community,” asked of African American and Asian respondents. Again, the problem here is that there are three questions combined into one — whether Latino immigrants take away jobs, take away housing, and take away political power are all three distinct issues and questions that are unfortunately all rolled into one.
Take together, I would argue that these two questions may have distorted and exaggerated the overall level of racial tension between Asians, African Americans, and Latinos, especially considering most of the other findings in the NAM study, which generally showed a high level of willingness to cooperate with each other.
Specifically, 86% of Asians, 89% of African Americans, and 92% of Latinos agreed with the statement, “African Americans, Latinos, and Asians have many similar problems. They should put aside their differences and work together on issues that affect their communities.”
Ultimately and in my opinion, that is the probably the most significant finding from the NAM survey — although some tensions and stereotypes still exist between Asians, Latinos, and Africans Americans (although the true extent is still unknown because some of the questions asked were biased and misleading), overwhelming majorities of each group are willing to work together to address issues of discrimination and inequality that they have in common.
To conclude, both the Pew and NAM studies stand as useful examples of both useful and interesting data, but also how shortcomings in their fundamental design unfortunately compromised their overall value.
As sociologists and as Americans in general, these are the kinds of institutional issues we need to keep in mind when we try to apply them to better understand specific issues.
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Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "New Research on Racial Ethnic Attitudes" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2008/01/new-research-on-racial-ethnic-attitudes/> ().
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