Are Things Bad Just Because People Think They’re Bad?

August 5, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the Republican debate tomorrow, race relations may be one of the topics. If so, someone will surely point to the recent polls that have been announced in headlines like these

Poll Finds Most in U.S. Hold Dim View of Race Relations

Here’s another sign that race relations in America
have gotten really bad


The first headline is from The New York Times, the second from the blog Townhall. Both are based on a CBS poll from late July. The third is from another right-wing blog, Breitbart, though it refers to a CBS poll from two months earlier.

The headlines seem to be saying the same thing. The Times headline is about what people think about race relations. The other two make claims as to the actual state of race relations. This difference raises an important question: Is the perception of race relations the same as the reality of race relations?

The Times headline –  about perceptions – is the most accurate. The survey asked, “Do you think race relations in the United States are generally good or generally bad?” The other two headlines assume that the perception is the reality.

(Click on a graph for a larger view.)

The timeline shows clearly one important factor influencing the answer to this question – front-page news. 

When people see a lot of footage of White cops beating and sometimes killing unarmed Black people, and when people see footage of Black people protesting and rioting in response, they think that race relations in the country as are generally bad. That’s what happened in 1992 with Rodney King and most recently with the killing by police of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others. When people see the country elect its first Black president, perceptions about race relations improve. (However, the Gallup poll showed almost no change in early 2009.)   

The historical pattern is the same for Whites and Blacks, though Blacks are usually about ten percentage points more pessimistic.

(Because of the small number of Blacks in the sample, the margin of error is larger, and the changes from poll to poll may appear greater than they actually were.)

Big news events affect how people perceive race relations in the country as a whole. But does that response reflect the actual goodness or badness of race relations for most people? Someone might argue that in this case, perception is reality. If I think that race relations are bad – i.e., that Blacks don’t like me because I’m White – and if Blacks think the same way, then the mutual distrust or fear does constitute bad race relations.  

Two other questions in the same survey suggest that what people think about race relations generally in the US is not at all the same as the way they experience race relations in their own lives.  One question asks whether race relations in the person’s own community are good or bad. 

Two things are clear. First, people feel much better about their own communities than about the US. Typically, five times as many people choose “Good” rather than “Bad.” Even among Blacks, on average twice as many choose Good over Bad. (The ratio is more than double, closer to 2.5 - 1).

Second, those big news stories don’t seem to have a big impact on perceptions about things close to home. In March 2014 – before Ferguson, before Eric Garner, before Baltimore – 26% of Blacks said that race relations in their community were “Bad.” When the same question was asked after those events (December 2014, March and July 2015), that percent had risen by only 2 or 3 points, well within the margin of error.

Finally, there’s the question of progress on the race front. Here is the way the survey asks it:

“Some people say that since the 1960s there has been a lot of real progress in getting rid of racial discrimination against blacks. Others say that there hasn't been much real progress for blacks over that time. Which do you agree with more? Would you say there's been a lot of real progress getting rid of racial discrimination or hasn't there been much real progress?”

For both races, optimists outnumber pessimists, except in May 1992, two months after the Rodney King beating, when 68% of Blacks saw no real progress. But other national events, including Obama’s victory in 2008, caused no sudden changes in the overall assessment of progress. Instead, perceptions of progress show a steady but real increase in the 1990s, with only small changes in this century.

I can understand how someone looking at the CBS poll can conclude that race relations are worse (especially someone who wants to think that in Obama’s presidency everything has gotten worse).  With jobs or GDP or taxes or the number of people without health insurance, we can measure the increase or decrease. We have no similarly clear measures of the quality of race relations. So we are left with perceptions. And after all, perceptions of race relations and race relations themselves are both mostly about people’s reactions – their ideas and feelings.So why not equate the perception with the reality?

The trouble is that a person’s perceptions about what seems to be the same subject, race relations, can be very different depending on the frame of reference – the US as a whole or the person’s own circumstances, recent events or a longer sweep of history.

No comments: