Perception Gap Could Stymie Racial Initiatives

Gallup poll shows wide gap in public views of how blacks in America today are faring.

As President Clinton readies a broad initiative to combat racism and crimes of bigotry, there is fresh evidence of a wide gap in American views about the extent of these problems.

A large majority of white Americans do not believe blacks in their neighborhood face discrimination. But nearly half of the blacks surveyed in a Gallup poll report they are treated worse than whites.

The gap underscores both the need and the challenge the administration faces in generating support among white voters for these new initiatives, say experts, and for other issues such as affirmative action. The poll, they say, highlights a public "perception block" policymakers will confront.

"White Americans are not sympathetic to the idea that there have to be a lot of changes, because they don't think there are a lot of problems," says Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup poll.

Indeed, the poll shows that nearly 4 in 10 whites favor scaling back the government's affirmative action programs, while blacks are twice as likely as whites to favor an expansion of the programs.

Unlike during the 1960s civil rights era, far less progress has been made in narrowing the gap in black and white perceptions on racial problems during the conservative-leaning 1990s, experts say.

"There was a sense of tremendous movement that really ended in the late 1960s. [Since then] the gap between whites and blacks over racial discrimination has not changed and remains fairly large," concludes Howard Schuman, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and author of the forthcoming "Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations".

The Gallup poll, to be released today, is based on telephone interviews with 3,036 randomly selected adults, including 1,269 blacks and 1,680 whites, conducted during January and February this year.

Across the spectrum of questions, white interviewees expressed far more positive views on how black Americans are treated than did the blacks themselves. For example, 20 to 30 percent more whites than blacks believe blacks face equal opportunities in obtaining jobs, education, housing, as well as fair treatment in restaurants, shops, the workplace, and in the hands of police.

Nearly twice as many whites as blacks polled say the quality of life for blacks has improved nationwide over the past 10 years.

Collectively, whites also claim to harbor little prejudice against blacks, placing their level of bias at 2 on a scale of 10. On specific issues, most whites say they favor a racially mixed working environment (82 percent), would vote for a black presidential candidate (93 percent), approve of interracial marriage (61 percent), and would not object to sending their children to a school where the majority of students are black (59 percent).

"Whites are looking at themselves and saying they are not prejudiced. Then, they extrapolate and say 'I don't believe blacks have a problem with discrimination,' " says Mr. Newport.

The central factor in explaining the perception gap: Blacks have far greater daily contact with whites than whites do with blacks, according to the poll. Both blacks and whites live, work, and send their children to school in settings that are half or mostly white, it showed.

Blacks polled - especially young black men - say they routinely experience prejudice day to day. Many say they have suffered discrimination in the previous month in the following areas: shopping (30 percent), dining out (21 percent), at work (21 percent), and with police (15 percent).

A RACIAL DIVIDE

A Gallop poll released today illustrates the divide between perceptions of black and white respondents on racial issues.

1. How are blacks treated in your community?

* 49 percent of blacks said blacks are treated the same as whites.

* 76 percent of whites said blacks are treated the same as whites.

2. What should the government's role be in improving the conditions of blacks and other minorities?

* 59 percent of blacks said it should make every effort.

* 34 percent of whites said it should make every effort.

* 30 percent of blacks said it should make no special effort.

* 59 percent of whites said it should make no special effort.

3. On affirmative action:

* 53 percent of blacks said affirmative action should be increased.

* 22 percent of whites said affirmative action should be increased.

* 29 percent of blacks said affirmative action should remain the same.

* 29 percent of whites said affirmative action should remain the same.

* 12 percent of blacks said affirmative action should be decreased.

* 37 percent of whites said affirmative action should be decreased.

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