I HAVE always believed that public opinion polls make one of their greatest contributions when used to assess the validity of ``common knowledge.'' With respect to race relations in America, the polls reveal how wrong ``common knowledge'' is. From what is said in much of the news media today, we would think the state of race relations in America had deteriorated to a post-war low. But this is far from the truth. There's no question that the racial climate in New York City is tense right now. Howard Beach, Bensonhurst, the Central Park jogger, Tawana Brawley: These bring to mind serious examples of racial animus, deserving of wide attention and condemnation. And New York City holds no monopoly on racial enmity. Black students battled white police officers last year in Virginia Beach, Va. And a former Ku Klux Klansman is making a credible run for the US Senate in Louisiana.
Although there may be reason to fear a rise in racial violence in cities and on campuses across the country, these remain isolated events that do not reflect the views or experiences of the vast majority of Americans - black or white. Blacks are far more satisfied with the quality of their lives than they were a decade ago, and whites have grown far more tolerant.
A Roper poll in 1978 sought to measure the conditions of the races, unaffected by any mention of race. To accomplish this, we asked people about conditions ``here in this neighborhood.''
Compared to whites, blacks that year reported far higher rates of unemployment, crime, drug abuse, and violence. In some cases, blacks were two, three, even four times as likely as whites to criticize the living conditions in their respective neighborhoods. This year we again asked the same series of questions and found major improvements. Although the experiences of blacks are still worse than those of whites, the differences have narrowed remarkably.
Fewer than a third of blacks complain, for example, about juvenile delinquency in their neighborhoods, down from half in 1978. At the same time, juvenile delinquency was mentioned as a problem by a fifth of whites, down from a quarter. Housing conditions also appear to have improved for blacks. Only 28 percent now cite a lack of good local housing, down 11 percentage points over the past dozen years. And fewer than a fifth criticize treatment by police, down 10 points. Other problems are mentioned much less frequently by blacks this year than in 1978: auto thefts (down 18 points), drug dealing (down 22 points), attacks on older people (down 23), break-ins (down 25), and unemployment (down 28).
The topic of race was then raised in a later part of the survey. The most significant changes came in the area of employment opportunities. Asked to consider a situation in which a black and white person of equal intelligence and skill applied for the same job, a plurality of whites in 1978 feared reverse discrimination - they said the black would get the job; today the dominant answer is that both would have an equal chance.
The shift in outlook among blacks is even more dramatic: Only a third now think the white person would have the better chance of being hired, down from half. Four in 10 blacks - twice as many as 12 years ago - say both candidates would have an equal chance. Half of all blacks call conditions for black people excellent or good, up from only 39 percent 12 years ago.
Attitudes about race and ethnic differences are shifting in other areas, too. Our 1990 survey indicated a more positive view among Americans of the country's growing Hispanic population. Seven years ago, for instance, 66 percent of respondents in a similar poll felt that Hispanics added to the welfare rolls. That number is now down to 50 percent. Fifty-two percent then believed that Hispanics were taking jobs away from other Americans; this year that had fallen to 29 percent.
Asked if Hispanics have given ``a new vitality and energy to the communities they have settled in,'' 20 percent in 1990 said yes. In 1983, only 9 percent agreed with that assessment. The only category where perceptions of Hispanics became slightly more negative concerned their willingness to learn English.
How do we square these findings with the sense of racial violence? It may be that our equality-minded society has grown more sensitive to racial discord - that we've come to notice displays of racial animosity more than we used to.
The news media also bear some responsibility for overplaying stories of racial tension. Indeed, when a recent poll of New Yorkers asked them which of nine individuals and institutions were making race relations worse in the city, the top two answers were the Rev. Al Sharpton (a black activist who has seemingly sought racial confrontation, mentioned by 84 percent) and the news media (69 percent). On this question, blacks and whites were in complete agreement.