One of my favorite demographic tidbits is the fact that there are roughly six white Americans for every person labeled as “black” in the census. Which means, given the extent to which African-Americans are concentrated in a few geographic regions, that there are large numbers of white people who have minimal to nonexistent contact with black people.
With that in mind, it’s not too surprising to discover the extent to which white Americans have a far more optimistic view of race relations than their black (and even Latino) fellow citizens. According to the latest survey by the Greenlining Institute—“a national…institute working for racial and economic justice”—just 16 percent of whites believe that there is a lot of discrimination in America today, compared to 59 percent of African-Americans and 22 percent of Latinos.
Overall, the institute found, whites have an incredibly skewed view of racial progress in this country. Despite the fact that African-Americans and Latinos earn significantly less money and have less wealth than their white counterparts, only 37 percent of whites believe that blacks make less money than whites, and a small majority believe that blacks’ and whites’ incomes are about the same. Likewise, a majority of white Americans believe that blacks’ health is “about the same” as their own, despite all evidence to the contrary.
The biggest difference in perception came with views of the federal goverment. When asked about the government’s treatment of blacks and whites vis-à-vis each other, 56 percent of African-Americans said that the government treats whites better than it treats blacks. By contrast, only 9 percent of white Americans hold this view, while a majority holds the view that the government treats the two groups equally. And 25 percent of whites hold the opposite view, which is that the government treats blacks better than it does whites.
A few things. The black perception of racial progress isn’t necessarily correct, but it seems more accurate than the reality perceived by white Americans in the survey. The government might not have an active preference for white Americans, but over the last year, conservative politicians have attacked policies—like Pell Grants and social spending—that benefit African-Americans, and have pursued “solutions,” like deficit reduction, which would harm them disproportionately.
It’s not hard to see why white Americans might hold an overly positive view of race relations. In addition to the relative lack of contact between whites and blacks, it’s simply true that elite blacks have achieved an unprecedented level of influence in American life (see: President Obama). Absent contact with everyday black communities, it’s easy to think that African-Americans are doing as well as everyone else. What’s more, in the same way that it’s hard for individuals to accept the degree to which an action might be prejudiced, it’s hard for them to accept the extent to which their country might struggle with racial inequalities. As the Greenlining Institute notes:
How people define themselves is related to the group that they belong to and identify with, in this case Americans. Things that challenge a positive view of the group are potentially damaging to an individual’s self-worth: If Americans are bad in some way, then an individual American is potentially tainted.
The problem, of course, is that it’s very hard to find solutions to racial inequalities when most Americans refuse to acknowledge their reality. And at a time when poor economic conditions feed zero-sum thinking, tailored solutions to racial problems become incredibly difficult.