See No Evil: Perception and Reality in Black and White

Published as a ZNet Commentary, August 2, 2001

According to a public opinion poll from a few years ago, only six percent of whites in the U.S. believe racism is still a “very serious” problem facing blacks. While larger percentages believed racism to be somewhat of a problem, only this anemic share of the white community saw it as an issue of great importance. When you consider that twice that number, or as many as 12 percent, have told pollsters they believe Elvis Presley may still be alive, it becomes apparent that delusion has taken on a whole new meaning for the dominant racial majority. Apparently, it is easier for whites to believe that a pill-popping, washed-up lounge singer faked his own death and is playing midnight gigs at some tropical resort, than to believe what black folks say they experience every day.

So it was no surprise to read yet another poll, indicating that whites largely don’t think racial discrimination remains a big problem, and that whites and blacks continue to view issues of race far differently. According to the recent Gallup Survey on Black-White Relations, seven of ten whites believe blacks are treated equally in their communities; eight in ten say blacks receive equal educational opportunities, and 83 percent say blacks receive equal housing opportunities. Only a third of whites believe blacks face racial bias from police in their areas. Despite the fact that half of all blacks say they have experienced discrimination in the past month, whites persist in believing that we know their realities better than they do, and that black complaints of racism are the rantings of racial hypochondriacs. Blacks, we believe, make mountains out of molehills, for Lord knows we would never make a molehill out of a mountain!

That white perceptions regarding the extent of racial bias are rooted in ignorance is made clear by a number of important facts. First, as will be shown below, there is the evidence indicating that equal opportunity is the stuff of fiction, not documentary; and secondly, the simple truth is, white perceptions of racism’s salience have always been splendidly naive. Indeed, as far back as 1963, before there was a Civil Rights Act to outlaw even the most blatant racial discrimination, sixty percent of whites said that blacks were treated equally in their communities. In 1962, only eight years after the Brown decision outlawed segregation in the nation’s schools (but well before schools had moved to integrate or equalize their classrooms), a stunning eighty-four percent of whites were convinced that blacks had equal educational opportunity. In other words, white denial of the racism problem is nothing new: it was entrenched even when this nation operated under a formal system of apartheid.

Of course, this ignorance of the lived realities of black people is no surprise. Rather, it is the result of our isolation from African Americans in daily life. More than eighty percent of whites live in virtually all-white neighborhoods, and nearly nine in ten white suburbanites live in communities with less than one percent black populations. What’s more, only twelve percent of whites in law school today — who by historical standards have had more opportunity to mix with people of color than any generation before them — say they had significant interaction with blacks while growing up. One can expect this degree of isolation to lead to a skewed perception of what other people experience. After all, if one doesn’t know many blacks, or witness discrimination, it is all the more likely that one will find the notion of widespread mistreatment hard to digest. Especially when one has been socialized to give more credence to what members of one’s own group say, than what the racial “other” tells us is true.

Don’t misunderstand; I’m not suggesting that every time a black person says they’ve been discriminated against that they are, in fact, correct. Individuals can misperceive certain situations. But the reality of individual misperception should not lead to the widespread belief in mass black delusion, which is the only way one can read the Gallup figures. For so many whites to believe blacks have equal opportunity is not only to discount a few claims of discrimination that may be without merit: rather, it is to reject the broad swath of claims that virtually every African American can bring forth from their personal mental rolodex. Fact is, if even one-tenth of the black claims of discrimination were accurate, this would translate into over 1.75 million cases of anti-black racial bias every month, based on survey data. Unfortunately, it’s doubtful the numbers are this small.

Though the Gallup survey didn’t address racial discrimination in the labor market, there is little question that when whites say blacks are treated equally, they assume this to be true for the world of work. But what is the reality? According to a recent study by the Russell Sage Foundation, even though blacks search for work longer and often more aggressively than whites, they are between 36-44 percent less likely to be hired for jobs in mostly white suburbs, even when their experience and qualifications are equal to their white counterparts. White males with a high school diploma are just as likely to have a job, and tend to earn just as much as black males with college degrees; and on average, even when age, experience, education and other relevant factors are similar, blacks are paid at least 10 percent less than comparable whites.

As for education, the picture is much the same. Although formal segregation is illegal, de facto segregation remains a reality thanks to “ability tracking,” which has less to do with actual ability, and more to do with racial and class bias against children of color and those from low-income families. Beginning as early as kindergarten, teachers and counselors separate students based on so-called cognitive skill levels, despite evidence that the tests used to determine these skill levels are inaccurate predictors of ability and terribly biased against students from non-dominant cultural backgrounds. Even when black students show potential that is equal to or above that of whites, they are far less likely to be placed in advanced classes, according to the head of the College Board. Despite evidence of ability, blacks are 2.5 times more likely to be placed in remedial classes, where they will typically be taught by the least qualified teachers, be given less challenging material to learn, and receive on average nearly 40 hours less actual instruction annually.

So too is educational inequity fostered by unequal discipline, meted out in a racially disparate manner. Even though black and white rates of school rule infractions are roughly equal, black students are twice as likely as whites to be suspended or expelled. Blacks are half of all students suspended or expelled for weapons violations, even though self-report surveys indicate whites are just as likely to bring weapons to school, and white males are actually twice as likely as black males to do so. Since blacks are more likely to be suspected, thanks to common stereotypes about violence and delinquency, they are the ones who get searched and caught, but this hardly means they break the rules more often. According to studies by the Applied Research Center, the disproportionate rate of black suspensions is the result of greater punishment given for subjective infractions like “defying authority,” or “attitude problems,” both of which are perceived as more threatening when coming from black students than whites.

As for housing, virtually every study on housing bias in rental and mortgage markets for three decades has found evidence of substantial ongoing discrimination. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, there may be up to two million cases of racial housing bias each year, and as many as half of all blacks may face discrimination when trying to rent an apartment or purchase a home. According to the Boston Federal Reserve Bank, whites are fifty-six percent more likely to receive a mortgage loan than blacks, even after controlling for thirty-eight factors that could explain different acceptance rates, including credit, collateral, and income. Nationwide, mortgage rejection rates for the highest income blacks are roughly the same as those for the lowest income whites.

Finally, white protestations that blacks receive equal treatment from police in their communities, are nothing short of laughable. A look at police prosecution of the war on drugs alone gives the lie to white claims of equal law enforcement. Though blacks are fewer than fourteen percent of illegal drug users, they are thirty-five percent of those arrested for possession. In many communities, including some of the ones where whites claim there is no bias in policing, blacks face arrest rates for drugs that are five, ten, even twenty times higher than the rates for whites, despite roughly equal rates of drug usage. Though a slim majority of whites admit that racial profiling — one clear example of unequal treatment — does happen, few believe it happens where they live. Yet in state after state, studies have found a disproportionate rate of highway and surface street stops of vehicles driven by blacks, and searches of cars driven by blacks, above and beyond the rates of black traffic infractions, which otherwise might create reasonable cause. In New York City, from 1997-1998, the NYPD’s Street Crimes Unit stopped and frisked 135,000 people, 85 percent of whom were people of color. Only 4500 persons were ultimately arrested and prosecuted, meaning that over 95 percent of those harassed were innocent. Interestingly, whites who were stopped were significantly more likely to be found with drugs or other contraband, indicating that not only was this policy of racial stops and searches a biased one, but it failed the test as valid crime control on its own merits as well.

Of course, I hardly expect the facts to matter much, as lots of whites seem impervious to them. When it comes to racial realities, the levels of ignorance are so ingrained as to be almost laughable. Perhaps that’s why twelve percent of whites actually say blacks are a majority of the nation’s population, and why most whites, according to one recent survey, believe blacks are a third of the nation’s population, instead of the thirteen percent they actually represent. We seem to see black people everywhere, and apparently we see them doing quite well. We even see them as our buddies. Seventy-five percent of whites in one poll indicated that they had close black friends (friends, as in plural). Sounds great, until you realize that seventy-five percent of white Americans represents about 145 million people. Imagine that: 145 million people who say they have multiple black friends, despite the fact that there are only 35 million black people to go around, which means one of two things: either whites are clueless about black people, friendships (or both), or black folks are mighty damned busy, running from white house to white house to white house, being our friends.

Let’s just say that if the last of these is true, we can put away all that nonsense about blacks “taking our jobs.” After all, how could blacks have time to work, what with all the backyard barbecues they’re attending at the houses of their white pals? Hell, maybe Elvis will even invite them all to Graceland when he makes his triumphant return to Memphis. Don’t laugh: some people will believe anything.

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