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    What America Thinks
    We've Moved Forward, but We Haven't Overcome

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, Oct. 5, 1998

    So where exactly do we stand now that our great national conversation on race has ended? Some have argued that we're no farther along than we were when President Clinton appointed the Citizens' Committee on Race and Ethnicity, which concluded its work with a report to Clinton last month.

    There's more than enough reason to disagree. Even though release of its final report was overshadowed by the Lewinsky scandal – what hasn't been eclipsed by this dreary tale? – much good work was done.

    A case in point: An analysis of survey data on racial attitudes prepared for the committee by political scientist Everett Carll Ladd and the staff of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut.

    In his report, Ladd writes that the country currently faces "two big challenges in ethnic relations: moving to further eradicate the bitter racial legacy that began with slavery and Jim Crow; and successfully assimilating into an increasingly diverse American family millions of new immigrants – drawn heavily from Central and South America and Asia."

    The challenges are large but the news is good: Race relations have improved. "All of the groups making up the American mosaic appear more positive and optimistic today than they were when the civil rights revolution began."

    Problems remain – and they're big ones. Ladd cites a Washington Post-ABC News poll earlier this year that found nearly half – 44 percent – of all blacks said they had been denied a job or promotion because of their race, more than three times the proportion of whites. Little wonder, then, that blacks consistently express more support for affirmative action programs than whites, particularly those designed to give preferences to minorities.

    Blacks and whites continue to strongly disagree over what to do to solve existing problems. "Because they have felt racism as others have not, African Americans remain today more insistent on the assumption of national responsibility for remedies," he says.

    He cites the 1996 General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), which found that two-thirds of African Americans believe the government is spending too little on assistance to blacks, a view held by fewer than one in five whites. Gallup last year reported that whites by a 2-1 margin said the government shouldn't make special efforts to help minorities "because they should help themselves," a view rejected by an identical 2-1 margin by blacks, who said government should "make every effort" to improve the position of blacks and other minorities.

    Yet his review of the data suggests that it's not merely unfair but flat wrong to suggest that blacks have not moved beyond victimhood. Only 13 percent of blacks (and an equal proportion of whites) said in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that "the problems that most blacks face are caused primarily by whites." Just one in four blacks said the most important step in improving race relations involves "white Americans doing more to recognize and reduce racism by whites against blacks."

    But Ladd says the most compelling evidence of blacks' growing rejection of victimhood comes from a Yankelovich Partners survey for Time and CNN in September 1997. This poll included national samples of white and black adults – and separate subsamples of teenagers.

    "These studies show dramatic generational changes – away from historical stereotypes of the respective groups," Ladd writes. "For example, while a clear majority of black adults attribute black Americans' having worse jobs, income and housing (compared to whites) 'mainly to discrimination,' a solid majority of black teens reject this view."

    Ladd says major generational shifts are also evident in the white population. "A majority of white adults said that failure to take advantage of opportunities is more of a problem for black Americans today than discrimination by whites," Ladd writes. "Among teens, it was reversed: A large plurality of white teenagers called discrimination by whites the greater problem for black Americans."

    Ladd also draws considerable comfort from data suggesting far more contact between blacks and whites today than just a relatively few years ago. He cites data collected since the early 1980s by the Post and ABC that asked blacks and whites whether they knew someone of the other race they considered a "fairly close personal friend."

    In 1981, 54 percent of all whites said they had a black friend; in 1997, 71 percent of whites said they did. Similarly, the percentage of blacks who reported having a white friend rose from 69 percent in 1981 to 83 percent last year. Ladd also cites NORC data showing the proportion of whites who said they live in neighborhoods with blacks has increased steadily. And relatively few blacks and whites told Gallup poll-takers last year that they would prefer to live in a neighborhood made up of people of their race.

    "Such findings need to be viewed cautiously and interpreted carefully," Ladd warns. "Saying one is committed to integrated housing is now the only acceptable professed norm; some almost certainly opt for it in polls who do not follow it in real life. But professed norms are themselves important." (More significantly: The proportion of Americans living in integrated neighborhoods is rising, albeit slowly, and the number of interracial couples is increasing as social taboos against dating and marrying someone of another race fall.)

    So the trends are hopeful, Ladd told the committee. "Set against the standard of where we would like our society to be, the present mix of ethnic group attitudes and relations leave much ground to be covered. But set against past experience – indeed that at any previous point since the country's founding – today's ethnic relations manifest striking progress."

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net .

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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