Hard-core white racism is still alive in America, but it is not growing as many blacks now fear. At the same time, racial stereotypes still pervade white attitudes toward blacks -- stereotypes that may be less malicious than the old "white supremacy" but are still damaging to blacks.
These social definitions are derived from the Washington Post-ABC News opinion survey which attempted to explore American race relations in 1981, including the depth of bigotry and antiagonism still alive in the nation. On the whole, the results suggest progress and improved relations. Nevertheless, Americans, white and black, continue to use race as a principal factor in defining fellow citizens.
Nearly a fourth of white adults, for instance, still expouse a belief in white superiority over blacks. Some of these whites no longer advocate hard-core segregationist policies toward blacks, but they still believe blacks are inferior. This group is much smaller than it was four decades ago when a majority of whites believed blacks were inferior, but it has not shrunk appreciably in recent years.
White adults, more broadly, may accept the idea of equal opportunity for blacks but many of them doubt that blacks will be able to take full advantage of a discrimination-free society. For instance, most whites agree that blacks today still have worse housing, jobs and incomes but six of every ten whites blame blacks themselves, not racial prejudice.
Question: do blacks lack the motivation and willpower to pull themselves out of poverty? Yes, according to 58 percent of white adults.
This racial stereotype is shared by many blacks, too. According to the survey, nearly half of black adults -- 47 percent -- likewise feel that blacks lack the motivation to succeed. This negative self-image is strongest among the poor and uneducated who have not experienced upward progress in the last decade of racial change.
Most white Americans believe that only the vestiges of racial discrimination remain in the country. The more virulent and consistent version of racial prejudice, it would appear, is limited to a relatively small proportion of the white population. Nevertheless, the great majority of whites still expresses race bias to some degree.
One key question put to the Post-ABC poll sample of 1,872 people, including 446 blacks, was this:
"Most people agree that, on the average, blacks have worse jobs, income and housing than whites. Do you think the differences are because most blacks have less inborn ability to learn?"
This question has been asked in national surveys with slight variations for many years, and is aimed at measuring hard-core racist views. In the early 1940s, a majority of white Americans believed blacks had inborn inferiority; by the mid-1970s that hard-core group had shrunk to roughly one-quarter of the white population.
In the Post-ABC poll, 23 percent of the whites still say "yes" to that question -- scarcely any difference. Perhaps more startling is the response from blacks; 25 percent agree.
Another question asked whether people tend to agree or disagree with this statement: "Blacks would rather accept welfare than work for a living." Thirty-four percent of the whites and 23 percent of the blacks said they agree.
These two questions, along with two others that asked about racial bias on housing and black capabilities, provide a rough scale for defining the depth of anti-black attitudes.
The result was this: 9 percent of the whites interviewed took the anti-black position on all four questions, 20 percent took that position on three of the four questions, 51 percent took the anti-black position on one or two of the four, and 20 percent never took the anti-black position.
Traditionally, the South has been considered the nation's bastion of racism. The Post-ABC poll suggests that there is somewhat more prejudice in the South than in other regions, but not a great deal more. The strongest anti-black opinions are concentrated among the elderly, retired or working-class whites. White men tend to be more prejudiced than white women. Whites who live in segregated neighborhoods are likely to be more prejudiced than whites who live in integrated neighborhoods.
The region in which the survey finds least prejudice is the West, where both blacks and whites express greater feelings of racial tolerance.
The poll reveals a close connection between anti-black prejudice and fear of racial confrontation and black rioting in the cities. A majority of whites who take the most prejudiced positions feel that "the chances of violent black protest by blacks in the United States" are greater today than they were four or five years ago. As the extent of prejudice goes down, so does expectation of violent black protest.
Fern Rhoe, 58, a white full-time homemaker who lives in Silver Creek, Minn., took the anti-black position on all four questions.
"I feel that they just kind of sit back, a lot of them, and don't put forth effort to help themselves," she said.
There are few blacks in her dairy and grain-farming community. Her opinions have been formed by what she has seen on television or read in the newspapers and by the rundown black neighborhoods she has observed during infrequent visits to Minneapolis and St. Paul, she said.
"Maybe some people would just as soon be left alone to live the way they want to. Maybe they're happy that way."
A white, middle-aged Dayton, Ohio, woman complained: "Blacks have stirred agony in America and are destroying our neighborhoods and our country, section by section."
"We are tired of the 'dole'," she said. "My mother-in-law lives in a now black neighborhood. She is 81 and has been robbed twice and mugged once. She is virtually a prisoner in her own home. She says the neighbors are taking the government for plenty and not working hard or at all."
Aside from the group expressing hard-core opinion against blacks, the white population in general frequently holds inconsistent views. For instance, three of every four white Americans now agree that it is an expression of prejudice if whites move away when blacks begin to move into a neighborhood. However, the majority of whites still oppose laws that would prohibit racial discrimination in the sale of housing.
It is not a new discovery that a substantial minority of blacks share the same negative opinions toward blacks that are espoused by white racists. For years, sociologists have explored the negative self-image among blacks, attributing it generally to the damaging effects of a history of segregation and second-class citizenship. Some scholars believe that the harshness of slum life in big cities has created a black "underclass" that doubts its own worth.
To trace the extent of black self-doubt, blacks in the poll were grouped according to how they answered three questions: whether blacks had less inborn ability to learn, whether blacks lacked motivation and willpower to pull themselves out of poverty, and whether "blacks would rather accept welfare than work for a living."
Among blacks surveyed, 10 percent took the anti-black position on all three questions, 45 percent on one or two. The remaining 45 percent took none of the anti-black positions.
The poll shows that negative sentiments about themselves are concentrated among older, impoverished and less educated blacks, especially those who live in highly segregated areas. In general, when poor blacks disparage blacks, they do not refer to themselves and their own families, but they do talk in general terms about the poor people in their neighborhood or housing project.
The poll also shows extraordinary similarties between the most prejudiced whites and the blacks with the lowest self-esteem. Both groups tend to have much less formal education than others of their race. Among whites in general, 18 percent of those interviewed said they had less than a high school education, but among those exhibiting the most prejudice, half had less than a high school education. Among all blacks interviewed, one-third said they had not completed high school, but among those with the lowest racial self-esteem, four out of five said they had not completed high school.
Mildred Meredith, a 61-year-old black married to a waterman on Maryland's Eastern Shore who used to shuck oysters before retiring a few years back, told polltakers she believed that a lack of willpower and inborn ability were responsible for holding some blacks behind. She did not finish high school but she and her husband worked to buy their own home and she believes others should be able to do the same.
"The average oyster shucker, he could have a house. He could get one instead of living in the shanties," she said. "Some of them, I guess they've been down so long, I guess they don't want to help themselves. To tell you the truth, I don't know."
She said she has never "had any trouble out of any of them [whites]" even during the days of legal segregation on the Eastern Shore.
"I can go anywhere around here and I'm treated fine. I guess it's the way I carry myself. . . . They treat you like you carry yourself."
Most whites and blacks interviewed do not feel that the gains blacks have made in recent years have come at the expense of whites -- but two of every three of those who hold negative opinions toward blacks do believe that black advances have been at the expense of whites.
Both of these hard-core groups, white and black, express sharp concern about the present and fears of the future.
The most prejudiced whites, for example, are more likely than any other group in the population to see their financial situation worsening. They express the highest degree of fear of the likelihood of black rioting and violent protest.
The black self-doubters, on the other hand, tend to see a rise in white prejudice in their own communities, while other blacks see a decline.
Their doubts are rooted in their own bleak experience. They are far less likely than all other groups to look back on the 1970s as a decade of advancement for black people.One-third of them -- twice the rate for the rest of black America -- say conditions for blacks got worse during the past decade instead of better. And, indeed, for many of them, they are right.