Four years ago was a time of hope and change amid an economic crisis that came far closer, than most wanted to imagine or believe, to bringing down the entire western financial markets. In the middle of that crisis was the election of the nation’s first African-American President.
Experts were quick to warn that this did not necessarily end the days of racial prejudice against blacks. Indeed, four years later, the on-the-ground circumstances facing many are even more bleak than they were before.
But for the public it was the time of hope that, if we could elect a black President, maybe the other hurdles we faced in this nation could also be overcome.
These concerns about other hurdles are now borne out by an Associated Press story, reporting on an AP Poll which found that “racial attitudes have not improved in the four years since the United States elected its first black president…, as a slight majority of Americans now express prejudice toward blacks whether they recognize those feelings or not.”
The AP continues, “Racial prejudice has increased slightly since 2008 whether those feelings were measured using questions that explicitly asked respondents about racist attitudes, or through an experimental test that measured implicit views toward race without asking questions about that topic directly.”
51 percent of those polled expressed explicitly anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 percent in a 2008 survey.
These findings come as a blow to those who believed, or at least hoped, that racial prejudice was, if not a thing of the past, at least on the wane.
Worse yet, the implicit racial attitudes test is even more concerning as “anti-black sentiments jumped to 56 percent, up from 49 percent during the last presidential election. In both tests, the share of Americans expressing pro-black attitudes fell.”
“As much as we’d hope the impact of race would decline over time … it appears the impact of anti-black sentiment on voting is about the same as it was four years ago,” said Jon Krosnick, a Stanford University professor who worked with AP to develop the survey.
As a former political scientist, I am well aware of the work that Professor Krosnick (whom I worked under in the summer of 2005) and others have done on this issue.
Political scientists and psychologists have long believed that there are two types of racial prejudice. The first is the explicit type which measures the level to which people dislike the group and support prejudicial policies. The problem with the explicit measure is that political correctness perhaps undermines people’s willingness to express such views.
So researchers have attempted to create another battery of questions to tap into an underlying racial prejudice that impacts people’s policy positions but is not explicitly expressed.
As one might imagine, at least in the past, there were some problems with those measures as some conflated with political conservatism. For instance, if one opposes Affirmative Action, is it because they dislike African-Americans, or is it because they are a conservative who does not wish the government to attempt to counter-balance traditional racial prejudice with what they see as reverse discrimination?
However, to their credit, most researchers recognized that problem and have corrected for it.
The AP surveys were conducted with researchers from Stanford University, the University of Michigan and NORC (National Opinion Research Center) at the University of Chicago.
The findings did not surprise most researchers.
“We have this false idea that there is uniformity in progress and that things change in one big step. That is not the way history has worked,” said Jelani Cobb, professor of history and director of the Institute for African-American Studies at the University of Connecticut. “When we’ve seen progress, we’ve also seen backlash.”
The AP reports, “Obama himself has tread cautiously on the subject of race, but many African-Americans have talked openly about perceived antagonism toward them since Obama took office. As evidence, they point to events involving police brutality or cite bumper stickers, cartoons and protest posters that mock the president as a lion or a monkey, or lynch him in effigy.”
Many are concerned that things like the birther movement are thinly-disguised racial prejudice . This is a message that is unfortunately reinforced when Mitt Romney makes the comment, “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place that we were born and raised,” he said.
The question I think most people need to ask is: why is that a good thing?
“Part of it is growing polarization within American society,” said Fredrick Harris, director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University. “The last Democrat in the White House said we had to have a national discussion about race. There’s been total silence around issues of race with this president. But, as you see, whether there is silence, or an elevation of the discussion of race, you still have polarization. It will take more generations, I suspect, before we eliminate these deep feelings.”
The survey finds that there is probably a net loss of 2 percentage points to President Obama due to anti-black attitudes. One of the questions is whether this is manifesting itself in the current polls.
That net loss is more complex, with five percentage points lost by President Obama partly offset by a 3 percentage point gain due to pro-black sentiment, researchers said.
“The Associated Press developed the surveys to measure sensitive racial views in several ways and repeated those studies several times between 2008 and 2012,” the report continues.
The explicit racial prejudice measures asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements about black and Hispanic people. In addition, the surveys asked how well respondent thought certain words, such as “friendly,” ”hardworking,” ”violent” and “lazy,” described blacks, whites and Hispanics.
According to the paper, co-authored by Josh Pasek of the University of Michigan, Jon Krosnick from Stanford and Trevor Tompson from NORC at the University of Chicago, “Implicit racial attitudes were measured using the Affect Misattribution Procedure (AMP). Respondents saw a series of Chinese ideographs, one at a time, and assigned each one to one of two categories, more pleasant and less pleasant, placing approximately half of the ideographs in each.”
The belief is that those who have favorable feelings toward the face will be more likely to label it as pleasant and the converse is also true, with people who have unfavorable feelings toward the face being more likely to label it as unpleasant.
One of the more interesting things from my perspective, however, is the local level.
I have long warned in Davis that racial animus is a good deal more prevalent than commonly perceived. Indeed, a few years ago a survey was taken of citizens that showed a large number in the minority community felt racial discrimination in their dealing with local business.
While Davis has long been viewed as a predominantly white community, the minority community – particularly Asians and Latinos – has grown tremendously. A few weeks ago we noted that in the last two decades the percentage of students in Davis schools who are white fell from 72 percent down to 57 percent.
And while that number is still a good deal higher than in adjacent communities and the state, all of which are minority-majority (a population composed of less than 50% non-Hispanic whites), it figures to change not only composition of residency in this community, but also the power structure, which figures to produce more tensions.
There is a perception by some that racial prejudice is more prevalent on the right than the left. However, I have longed believed that there is a group of liberals who are just as prejudiced.
Oh, they will happily vote for President Obama, liberal causes, they will even advocate for minorities, but they go home at night and live in their safe suburban white communities with a low crime rate and enact policies to keep their communities that way.
Here is where the implicit test becomes important and it appears (it has been seven years since I last really studied the literature on racial attitudes) that political scientists have fixed the conflation between the implicit measures and political conservatism, focusing on affective responses to photos rather than attitudes imbedded into otherwise ambiguous policy preferences.
The poll finds that using the explicit measure, Republicans were far more likely than Democrats to express racial prejudice in the questions measuring explicit racial prejudice. An alarming 79 percent of Republicans, compared with 32 percent of Democrats, expressed explicit racial preferences.
The implicit test showed that a majority of both Democrats and Republicans held anti-black feelings (55 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans), as did about half of political independents (49 percent).
The bottom line is that, despite policy preferences that would seem to indicate less prejudice by liberals, there is really not much difference between Democrats and Republicans in this regard.
This explains what I have observed in Davis. The general public was very willing to vote for President Obama but relatively unwilling to deal with racial prejudice on the home front, either insulating themselves from it or ignoring it.
However, demographic information suggests that Davis will not be able to insulate itself indefinitely. Already, between the increased percentage of minorities in school and the larger percentage of minorities on campus, there is increasingly a clash.
The business survey is instructive because it demonstrates empirically what we have long noted anecdotally – many minority students are uncomfortable going to Davis businesses and interacting with the community.
Clearly, this is an issue that is not nearly as far gone as some want to believe. The question is what the public is willing to do to deal with it.
—David M. Greenwald reporting