Misperceptions Cloud Whites' View of Blacks

By Richard Morin, Staff Writer

Washington Post, July 11, 2001

Whether out of hostility, indifference or simple lack of knowledge, large numbers of white Americans incorrectly believe that blacks are as well off as whites in terms of their jobs, incomes, schooling and health care, according to a national survey by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University.

Depending on the question, the poll found that 40 percent to 60 percent of all whites say that the average black American is faring about as well and perhaps even better than the average white in these areas.

In fact, government statistics show that blacks have narrowed the gap, but continue to lag significantly behind whites in employment, income, education and access to health care.

These misperceptions have consequences, the survey suggests. Among whites, the pervasiveness of incorrect views seems to explain, at least in part, white resistance to even the least intrusive types of affirmative action. And more broadly, these mistaken beliefs represent formidable obstacles to any government effort to equalize the social and economic standing of the races.

“The results suggest there is the overwhelming sense among most whites that this is 2001 — we could not possibly be saddled with segregation and discrimination and therefore things can’t possibly be as bad as black Americans say they are,” said political scientist Keith Reeves of Swarthmore College, an expert on racial attitudes and a consultant on the survey project.

These results also defy conventional wisdom. They indicate that many whites do not broadly view blacks as particularly disadvantaged or beset by problems that demand immediate attention. Instead, these whites believe exactly the opposite — that African Americans already have achieved economic and social parity. For these broadly misinformed whites, equality between the races is a reality.

“Blacks and whites are pretty much equal in terms of income and other things these days,” said Emily Reed, 48, who lives in Russell, N.Y., and was questioned in the poll. “It’s good that the bad days are past and blacks have come up. As a whole, you don’t hear about [problems] now as you used to. Now if something occurs, like a black guy being mistreated for a job or something, you hear about it.”

Others were less upbeat. “I think it’s pretty even, but you’d never get blacks to admit it,” said Thomas Ripley, 71, a retiree who lives in Belleville, Ill. “It keeps the pressure on government for more programs.”

Overall, the survey found that a majority of whites favored federal government action to ensure that all races had access to schools and health care. A larger majority said the government should make sure that blacks and whites were treated the same by police and the courts.

Still, whites with accurate views of black circumstances were more likely (69 percent versus 57 percent) to say the federal government has an obligation to make sure black and white children attend schools of equal quality.

Informed whites also were more likely to say the government had an obligation to ensure that the races were treated equally by the courts and police (79 percent versus 60 percent).

Black Gains in Society

Blacks have a far more negative view of their own circumstances, the poll found. Majorities of those polled said blacks continue to lag behind whites in terms of their educational achievement, income, jobs and health care. (Still, anywhere from a quarter to just over a third of all blacks also thought that African Americans were doing as well as whites in the areas tested.)

This survey is the latest in a series of polls on public policy issues conducted by The Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University researchers and includes questions on racial attitudes asked in the first Post/Kaiser/Harvard project in 1995.

A total of 1,709 randomly selected adults were interviewed by telephone from March 8 through April 22. The sample included 779 non-Hispanic whites, 315 Hispanics, 323 blacks and 254 Asians. The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points. It is plus or minus 4 points for whites, 6 points for blacks, 7 points for Latinos and 9 points for Asians.

Blacks have made dramatic progress in many, if not most, areas of American life. There have never been more blacks in the middle class or a larger share who have graduated from high school, gone to college, or entered professional schools. Virtually everywhere, from law firms to corporate board rooms to college faculties, African Americans are rapidly closing the achievement gap with white America.

But economic and social distance between blacks and whites is far from closed, except in the minds of many white Americans.

Six in 10 whites — 61 percent — say the average black has equal or better access to health care than the average white, according to the poll.

In fact, blacks are far more likely to be without health insurance than whites. In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey found that blacks were nearly twice as likely as whites to be without health insurance.

The survey found that half of all whites — 49 percent — believe that blacks and whites have similar levels of education, a perception that again is out of step with reality.

About one in six blacks — 17 percent — have completed college, compared with 28 percent of all whites. And 88 percent of all whites are high school graduates, compared with 79 percent of all blacks 25 years old or older.

“I’m surprised at those numbers; I thought everybody was the same these days,” said Jeffrey Thomas, 42, an ironworker who lives in Salem, Ore.

Thomas said his views on African Americans were based largely on the blacks that he knows and those he sees in his community. “I have black friends, and my son’s friend is black, and everybody’s in the same boat around here in Salem,” he said. “Maybe if you went to Portland, things would be different.”

Half of all whites — 50 percent — say that the average black is about as well off as the average white in terms of the jobs they hold, according to the Post/Kaiser/Harvard survey. Again, the hard data are less positive: A third of all whites hold professional or managerial jobs, compared to slightly more than one-fifth of all blacks, according to census data.

Blacks are about twice as likely as whites — 23 versus 12 percent — to hold lower-paying, less prestigious service jobs. Blacks also are more than twice as likely to be unemployed; in May, the jobless rate for blacks stood at 8 percent, compared with 3.8 percent among whites.

“Those figures are probably correct,” said Brian Clayton, 35, director of information technology for a law firm in Dayton, Ohio. “But what were they 10 years ago? Twenty years ago? I think we’re moving in the right direction. You shouldn’t just make a black a manager because he’s black. It’s going to take more time.”

The poll found that a majority of whites — 57 percent — recognize that blacks on average earn less than whites. Still, four in 10 whites — 42 percent — believed incorrectly that the typical black earned as much or more than the typical white.

In fact, substantial differences persist between black and white earnings. The median household income for whites was $44,366 in 1999, compared with $27,910 for blacks. Fewer than three in 10 whites earn less than $25,000; nearly half of all blacks in 1999 earned less than that. And the poverty rate for African Americans is more than double the white rate.

Blacks were twice as likely to have reported having difficulties recently paying their rent or mortgage and about half as likely as whites to have money invested in stocks, bonds or mutual funds, according to the Post/Kaiser/Harvard poll.

Another way to look at the extent of these misperceptions is to see what proportion of whites holds at least one false belief about black circumstances. When analyzed together, seven in 10 whites hold at least one of these misperceptions, and a majority — 56 percent — held two or more. Three in 10 whites — 31 percent — believe that the average black fared as well or better than whites in each of the four areas tested.

Perception of Competition

The sources of these misperceptions remain elusive. Swarthmore’s Reeves suggests that part of the answer is that black success, in part, may be masking lingering black disadvantage. As the black middle class swells, more whites see blacks who have the same skills, earn the same money, and live in the same kinds of neighborhoods.

Another part of the explanation is that whites may be feeling increased competition from blacks for jobs, promotions and college admission, Reeves said.

The survey found that less well-educated and lower-income whites — groups most likely to be competing directly with blacks — were significantly more likely to be misinformed about black circumstances. These pressures could breed resentment among whites, particularly toward any actions that would seem to provide additional and undeserved benefits to blacks.

And part of the answer, Reeves said, is that it simply is convenient for some whites to claim that blacks and whites are equal. Such beliefs eliminate the need for whites to take action on problems that disproportionally face the black community. “There remains an unwillingness to acknowledge reality and an unwillingness to move forward on the difficult question of race,” he said.

The survey provides evidence for this view. Misinformed whites were far less likely to view black problems as being serious, or to favor government action to correct persistent social and economic disparities.

“They’re treated just like anyone else,” said Tom Morford, 54, a steelworker who lives in Export, Pa. “Some may use it as an excuse to get things. For some, complaining is a way of life. But discrimination is not a problem, from what I can see.”

These divisions echo loudly in the policy arena, where they help to shape attitudes on an array of high-profile and racially charged issues such as affirmative action.

The survey found that an overwhelming majority of all whites and blacks continue to reject giving outright preferences to blacks and other minorities in employment or admissions to college, views that differed little by how much whites knew about black circumstances.

But “hard” preference programs are vanishing fast from the scene, either ended by judges who ruled these programs constituted reverse discrimination or abandoned by their besieged sponsors. In their place, many corporations and colleges are mounting “outreach” programs that aggressively seek qualified minorities.

But the Post/Kaiser/Harvard survey revealed that even these outreach programs are not popular with whites: only half — 49 percent — favor them, while 45 percent are opposed.

John Straley, 30, a firefighter in Rockford, Ill., opposes preference and outreach programs if the result is that blacks receive more consideration than equally qualified whites.

“That boils down to reverse discrimination,” Straley said. “I think education and jobs should be open to everybody. If they want to recruit minorities, fine, as long as an equally qualified white isn’t replaced. If that’s a problem, make the school bigger.”

Assistant Director of Polling Claudia Deane contributed to this report.