It’s hard to know where to begin in responding to the New York Times‘s latest poll on race relations. Predictably, the Times depicts an America racially divided and in which things haven’t changed much in recent decades:
The survey suggests that even as the nation crosses a racial threshold when it comes to politics – Mr. Obama, a Democrat, is the son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas – many of the racial patterns in society remain unchanged in recent years.
Indeed, the poll showed markedly little change in the racial components of people’s daily lives since 2000, when the Times examined race relations in an extensive series of stories called “How Race is Lived in America.”
As it was eight years ago, few Americans have regular contact with people of other races, and few say their own workplace or their own neighborhoods are integrated. In this latest poll, more than 40 percent of blacks said they believed they had been stopped by the police because of their racial background, the same figure as eight years ago; 7 percent of whites said the same thing.
But when you look at the specific answers to questions on the poll, such pessimism is mysterious. Putting aside the obvious point that a black man is about to be nominated for president by the Democratic party–a party which 44 years ago seated at its national convention an all-white delegation from Mississippi, a state in which blacks were prevented at the time from voting-there isn’t anything in the poll that suggests widespread white hostility to blacks. Whites have only slightly more favorable views of John McCain (35%) than they do of Barrack Obama (31%). On the other hand, blacks hold overwhelmingly positive views of Obama (83%) and very unfavorable views of McCain (57%). Even more amazing, both blacks and whites think Obama will be president (72% and 50% respectively). And the number of whites who say they intend to vote for Obama is actually higher than the number who hold favorable views of him–37%.
What the poll reveals is not a nation in which race dictates political behavior, at least not for whites. But the poll does suggest continued racial grievance on the part of blacks, with almost 40% saying they think there has been little or no progress in eliminating discrimination since the 1960’s and only 29% rating race relations in the U.S. as generally good. Yet, Hispanics have virtually identical views on the progress of race relations as whites, with 52% saying race relations are generally good compared to 55% if whites-this despite Hispanics’ perception that they are sometimes targets of discrimination.
Maybe the Times ought to begin asking why, despite obvious and real improvement in race relations and eliminating discrimination over the years, blacks remain so pessimistic in their outlook. The authors note, without irony:
Black and white Americans agree that America is ready to elect a black president, but disagree on almost every other question about race in the poll.
But the problem isn’t, as the tone of the article implies, whites’ failure to see racism lurking everywhere, but blacks’ refusal to admit things have changed.