Bias by the Numbers: Examining the Data on White Racism

Published as a ZNet Commentary, March 13, 1999

Anyone who does political analysis, advocacy, or organizing knows that folks on all sides of an issue have “numbers.” Trotting out statistics to prove one’s point about something is a well-accepted practice, yet rarely do we stop to think about what certain numbers mean, whether they are used by our side, or by our political adversaries.

As an antiracist activist, I regularly come across those who use numbers to prove (at least in their minds) that racist attitudes among whites are virtually nonexistent nowadays. As such, they ask, what are people like me, who discuss racism so often, complaining about? Aren’t things improving?

When it comes to discussing the improvement of white racial attitudes, my first response has always been that no matter how much improved are the views expressed to pollsters, the real issue is institutional inequity, which actually requires no overt bigotry for its perpetuation. While I still believe this to be important and true, and I’ll explain why shortly, I also realize that in some ways it’s a cop out; after all, there are real people behind those institutions, making real decisions, and others who don’t make decisions themselves, but nonetheless collaborate with the system as it is.

It is with that in mind that I decided to look more deeply at the numbers used by conservatives and even some liberals, which they feel prove how tolerant are today’s white folks. Although there have been many recent polls indicating that between 30-70 percent of all whites believe blacks are generally lazier than whites, less determined to succeed, and more prone to violence than whites, those who deny the persistence of racism tend to ignore these numbers, focusing instead on the few surveys which bolster their position.

So, for example, I have heard it said with great pride that only a very small percentage — perhaps as little as five percent of whites — now say blacks and other people of color are inferior races in the biological sense. This is an improvement since the 1940s, of course, at which time a clear plurality or even majority of whites would have responded positively to this Bell Curve-ish proposition. However, a few things should be remembered.

First, there are still enough people willing to entertain the notion of biological determinism so as to make The Bell Curve a best seller, not in the 1940s, but in 1995; and secondly, even if we accept the five percent figure as accurate, we should be clear on just how many folks that represents. We’re so used to hearing percentages expressed in such settings as elections, where a gap of 60-40 is considered a landslide, that when we are told “only” five percent think something, we assume it to be a fringe viewpoint, hardly worthy of concern. But when we look deeper, and examine some easily available Census data, it becomes clear that five percent of the white population holding essentially Hitlerian views about race is more of a big deal than previously believed.

Even if we subtract from the white population all whom the Census Bureau dubs “Hispanic whites,” leaving only those whom David Duke might consider sufficiently Caucasian, there are nearly 200 million whites in the U.S. Thus, five percent of the white population is nearly ten million persons: in this case, ten million persons who adhere to the purest racism imaginable, and would be considered racist under pretty much anyone’s definition.

Well just how many people is that? Is it such a small group that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with it? So small that people of color who worry about ongoing discrimination and unequal treatment must be overreacting? Hardly. Compare these ten million with a number of other population cohorts, about which the right (and others for that matter) are quite worried. Consider that ten million overt white racists is:

— Twice the number of “illegal immigrants” (approximately five million) currently in the U.S;

— At least five times the size of the “hardcore underclass,” (1.5-2 million) about which the right is in an uproar;

— More than three times the number of black single-moms with children (about 3 million), who according to contemporary political discourse are responsible for many of the nation’s worst problems;

— Forty percent more than the total number of persons who will commit a violent crime this year (roughly 7 million);

— A thousand times more than all the drunk drivers who will be involved in a fatal crash this year (less than 11,000);

— One-third more than all the babies born to teenagers in the last twenty years (about 6.5 million);

— Ten times more than the number of persons who will be reported for abusing a child this year;

— More than five times the number of persons currently in jail or prison nationwide;

— 3.5 times more than the total number of federal employees put together (and you know what a problem people think those “bureaucrats” are);

— Four times the number of single-moms receiving cash welfare payments, even before recent “reforms” bumped tens of thousands off the rolls;

And finally, 10 million overt white racists is:

— More than all the cashiers, secretaries, police officers, waiters, waitresses and cooks in the U.S. combined;

— And it is more than all the farmers, lawyers, telephone operators, childcare workers, cops and classroom teachers combined.

In short, “only” five percent of the white population is a lot of people, so that even by the most optimistic assessment of white racial attitudes, there are literally millions holding overtly racist views. When combined with those whose views are less vicious, but nonetheless hostile, and those who aren’t hostile at all, but who simply refuse to speak up against those who are, it becomes clear just how real a problem racism, even on the purely attitudinal level, remains.

When one then considers the institutional reality — that racial inequity can be perpetuated even in the absence of overt racial hostility — the problem’s severity becomes even clearer. For example, if a history of overt discrimination has provided head starts to whites in employment, education, housing and other settings, even if there were absolutely no overt bigots in the U.S. any longer, the accumulated advantages that have accrued to whites could and would remain in place. If those institutional inequities carried over from the past are then compounded by present-day biases (which in part derive from the very inequities that exist, and often cause people to rationalize inequities by making negative character judgments about those at the bottom), then the cycle of disadvantage and white privilege gets replicated in every generation.

The point of all this is that we must learn to deconstruct (for lack of a better term) the statistics that get thrown around in the debate over race and racism, so as to see what’s really beneath the surface, and to give them real meaning for people. Statistical data can easily obscure important truths, but with patience and a little critical thinking, that same data can also serve to illuminate social problems that many would prefer to keep hidden from view.

In the case of white racial attitudes, what the data illuminates is telling. Even using the most conservative and limited definition of racism, the number of whites holding overtly bigoted views is enormous, and certainly large enough to indicate that racism is still very much with us, even as we prepare to enter the 21st century

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