Have we achieved racial equality? Whites say yes, blacks say no
Studies show vast racial gap in how Americans gauge unfair treatment of blacks on the job, by police, in school and in other everyday situations.
By Emily Alpert
Half a century after Martin Luther King Jr. declared his famous dream, white Americans think his vision is much closer to reality than blacks do, a new survey from the Pew Research Center shows.
The findings underscore an enduring chasm between how white and black Americans perceive racism and its continued effects, as glaring gaps persist between whites and blacks in wealth, education and imprisonment.
Black Americans were nearly twice as likely as white ones — 79% versus 44% — to say that the U.S. had a long way to go before reaching racial equality, Pew found in a survey released Thursday. Nearly half of whites said the country had made a lot of progress toward that dream, while less than a third of blacks agreed.
And as blacks lament ongoing mistreatment, whites were much less likely to believe that blacks continue to be treated unfairly in courtrooms, classrooms or other common situations.
Whites may believe racism is gone because “the hideous things that have happened in our history” — such as lynchings or cross burnings — “have tended to disappear,” said Jerome Rabow, professor emeritus of sociology at UCLA. But “when blacks talk about how they’re doing, it’s more about their daily lives.”
Whites often miss those everyday frustrations, such as frequently being pulled over by police, Rabow said. Seventy percent of blacks surveyed said that in their community, police treated blacks less fairly than whites. Only 37% of whites agreed.
More than half of blacks surveyed said blacks were treated unfairly at work, compared to only 16% of whites who thought so. Hispanics fell somewhere in between whites and blacks on those and similar questions.
Other studies also show vast differences in how blacks and whites gauge racism: Earlier this summer, 74% of whites told Gallup that blacks in their community had an equal shot at jobs, while only 40% of blacks agreed. Whites also held much sunnier views about blacks’ chances at housing and a good education.
In the new millennium, “whites became more convinced that racism wasn’t a problem,” University of Chicago political science professor Michael Dawson said. “And blacks became more convinced that racial problems are not being solved.”
National polls recently revealed whites and blacks starkly split over whether the George Zimmerman case was tied to race. And last year, Loyola Marymount University researchers found that whites in Los Angeles were more upbeat than blacks about how Angelenos of different races were getting along.
Whites may see blacks alongside them at a Lakers game, but “you’re not around when the African American person goes to get a job and is offered thousands of dollars less,” said Marqueece Harris-Dawson, president of the Community Coalition in South Los Angeles.
Some scholars argue whites have grown increasingly blind to the disadvantages faced by blacks. One year after President Barack Obama was elected to his first term, a Harvard University study found 61% of whites said blacks had achieved racial equality, compared to 43% of whites who answered another survey nine years earlier.
More than half of whites thought blacks, on average, were doing as well or better than whites financially, Pew found in the new poll. Yet two years ago, the median white household had an income of $67,175, compared to $39,670 for black households. Wealth in white households, or assets minus liabilities, dwarfed that of black ones even more — $91,405 versus $6,446.
High school completion rates have drawn closer between black and white Americans, but blacks are still less likely than whites to have college degrees. And as of three years ago, black men were more than six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated, a gap that has widened since 1960.
Many experts argue that “structural racism” — advantages and disadvantages that perpetuate themselves even without people choosing to discriminate — plays a big part in continued inequality. For instance, even if companies don’t try to avoid hiring blacks, blacks may be less likely to get the best jobs because many get filled through word-of-mouth. That gives an edge to those who live and socialize with people already working lucrative jobs, who remain disproportionately white.
But whites have pulled away from such ideas: Over recent decades, fewer agreed on national surveys that slavery and discrimination had created conditions that made it hard for blacks to advance, University of Illinois at Chicago sociology professor Maria Krysan found. Instead, more chalk up inequalities to differences in culture, blaming those who aren’t succeeding, she said.
Pew found young whites were more likely than older ones to say blacks were treated unfairly. Yet in another study, based on the national Monitoring the Future survey, Emory University sociologist Tyrone Forman found young whites were increasingly likely to say they were indifferent to racial matters. Between 1976 and 2011, the percentage of young whites who said they never worried about race relations nearly tripled.
The problem is that “a lot of these biases have gone underground but have not disappeared,” Forman said. “And that’s what is powerful and dangerous about racial apathy. We are all still looking for the smoking gun,” such as Paula Deen using racial slurs — instead of more subtle discrimination, he said.
Whites have steered away from plainly bigoted ideas, such as whites being more intelligent than blacks, on national surveys over time. Pew found blacks and whites largely agree that they get along well. However, newer “implicit” tests show Americans tend to have more trouble matching positive words to black faces, suggesting that unspoken bias persists.