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The Limits of Racial Optimism

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opednews.com Headlined to H4 10/25/09

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It is no surprise that the nation's first president of color has been a lightning rod for discussion of race and racism in America. For those who struggle for racial justice, this inevitability has had positive and negative components. For a nation that often wishes to ignore the deep racial problems that permeate society, Barack Obama's election has forced us to confront, on a regular basis, the ugly truth that Martin Luther King's dream has not been realized. On the other hand, President Obama has had unrealistic expectations placed on him with respect to his ability to mend the country's racial wounds. We argued back in March that he would have a difficult time dealing with racism while in office, an analysis we felt compelled to offer as a result of what we saw as a dangerously and unrealistically optimistic frame employed in the mainstream media and, to a lesser extent, adopted by racially progressive thinkers, writers and activists. There was considerable evidence that the mass public also felt quite hopeful in this regard.

USA Today
released results of a poll they conducted jointly with Gallup THIS WEEK that was similarly framed in terms of American optimism with respect to improvements in race relations. While President Obama's approval ratings hover at around 50%, the pol reveals that six in ten Americans say that race relations will improve under his presidency; just 13% think race relations will get worse. Further, 40% of Americans believe things are already better in this regard; 22% think things have gotten worse.

Of course, examining differences in these attitudes with respect to the race of the respondents is important. According to Susan Page's story reporting on the poll:
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Blacks are much more likely than whites to say that racism against blacks persists -- 72% of blacks say it is widespread, compared with 49% of whites -- but they are also more optimistic that Obama's election will improve that.

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A 53% majority of African Americans say race relations already have gotten better as a result.
In other words, while Whites are more likely than Blacks to think there is not persistent racism against African Americans, they are less likely than Blacks to think that Obama's election (and presidency) has improved race relations already or will improve it in the future.

Compared with attitudes nearly a year ago (right after the election), there has been an understandable (and perhaps predictable) tempering of optimism, though the percentage of Americans who believe that race relations would one day no longer be an issue in America is still slightly higher than before Obama secured the Democratic nomination.
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In many ways, the framing of these data in terms of "optimism" is quite curious. For instance, consider this statement:
Over the past year, the percentage who say blacks have as good a chance as whites in their community to get a job for which they are qualified has risen by 8 percentage points. That's the biggest one-year jump since Gallup began regularly asking the question 20 years ago.
That's your cue to ask, "So what?" Without a breakdown by race for this question, and knowing that the poll is (appropriately, since it is a random national sample) dominated by Whites (there is no Black oversample or weighting of Black responses reported), this simply appears to reaffirm our understanding that Whites are more likely than ever to believe that we are in a post-racial society. If these attitudes are, indeed, an accurate reflection of reality (that is, if Blacks in their communities actually DO have as good a chance as Whites to get a job for which they are qualified), then that certainly is a reason for optimism. If it is just what folks think, then this is actually a reason to be quite pessimistic because such attitudes mask the true state of racial injustice and render more difficult the struggle to move toward equality.

An interesting finding that is not discussed in the story (but is presented in the graphs that accompany the story) involves respondents' degree of satisfaction with "the way things are going in the United States": 47% of Blacks and 22% of Whites report satisfaction. Even with the larger margin of error among African Americans in the sample (due to the smaller number of Blacks in the sample), this finding is remarkable and, perhaps, speaks to the important symbolic power -- at least, we suppose, if these numbers are correct, for African Americans -- of having a person of color in the White House.

Question and response option wording and the order in which questions are presented to respondents is important to know. We are not able to ascertain much of that information because the USA Today article does not provide it, and there is no link to the survey instrument. Specifically, we are concerned about the conflation of "race relations" and "racism against African Americans." These terms might prime very different underlying constructs among respondents, but they are somewhat carelessly used interchangeably (or at least alternately) in the article. One might imagine, for instance, someone believing that racism as a systemic force is still persistent against Blacks but that our collective ability to address it ("race relations") has improved. Or, one could imagine the exact opposite (e.g., someone who does not think racism is a problem anyway and sees more racial animosity reflected in the media since Obama's election). Further, we could learn much more if we could statistically control for other important factors that are known to be related to racial attitudes such as self-identified partisanship and ideology, geography, age, and gender. Perhaps most helpful would be measures designed to tap attitudes toward racism, such as Henry and Sears's "symbolic racism" scale for Whites and either the Multidimensional Inventory of Black Identity by Sellers or questions designed to tap Dawson's concept of "linked fate" for Blacks.

In other words, we can learn very little from this poll to help us meaningfully understand people's real attitudes about race relations and racism in America today. Add to that the fact the our conscious attitudes about race may not be as predictive of our behavior as our subconscious beliefs, and the poll (and corresponding story) is darn near useless in its current form. Certainly the headline -- "Poll: Hopes Buoyed on Race Relations" -- is not warranted and serves only to reinforce the wishful (and under-informed and misguided and blissful) notion that Obama's election either signaled or has ushered in a post-racial era in America.


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Stephen Maynard Caliendo is associate professor of political science at North Central College. Charlton McIlwain is associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University. They are co-authors of the forthcoming book "Race (more...)

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