In the days after the acquittal of four white Los Angeles police officers charged in the beating of a black man, black and white opinions were uncharacteristically in synch on a racial question. Large majorities of whites and overwhelming majorities of blacks told pollsters that the verdict was wrong and justice had not been served.
But when asked if the verdict "shows that blacks cannot get justice in this country," black and white opinion hit a fork in the road: 78 percent of blacks said yes, compared with only 25 percent of whites.
This dramatic divergence represents one of the fundamental schisms of race relations, social scientists say. Blacks and whites tend not to agree on what racism is, where it is, and the extent to which it plays a role in how black people fare.
In a Washington Post poll conducted earlier this year, for instance, overwhelming and nearly identical majorities of whites and blacks agreed that discrimination against blacks continues to be a problem. But while 71 percent of blacks felt blacks are not achieving equality as fast as they could because whites do not want them to get ahead, only 35 percent of whites agreed.
Blacks, social scientists say, tend to see racism as an ongoing and pervasive condition of American life, while whites tend to think of racism as individual actions or attitudes of bigotry that are the exception, not the rule. The former is the "racism-in-the-world" viewpoint, while the latter is about "racism-in-the-head," Judith Lichtenberg, a philosophy professor at the University of Maryland, wrote in the most recent issue of the academic journal Philosophy and Public Policy.
"In general, white people today use the word 'racism' to refer to the explicit, conscious belief in racial superiority," wrote Lichtenberg. "For the most part black people mean something different by racism: they mean a set of practices and institutions that result in the oppression of black people. Racism, on this view, is not a matter of what's in people's heads but of what happens in the world."
Blacks and whites generally have conflicting definitions of racism because the phenomenon affects their groups differently. Blacks traditionally have been on the receiving end of racism and have, as a result, become far more attuned to it. Whites, on the other hand, traditionally have been the sources of racism, or at least the passive beneficiaries of it.
As a result of these divergent perceptions and experiences, "whites and blacks have developed two different languages of race, and central to the differences of the language are different definitions of racism," said Robert Blauner, a University of California at Berkeley sociologist and author of "Black Lives, White Lives."
"In these two different languages of race, the black language of race sees race and racism as absolutely central to American culture and the way society is organized, whereas whites . . . don't see race and racism as central," Blauner said.
Because whites tend to hold a narrow view of what constitutes racism, they are often easily and personally rankled when charges of racism are leveled, Lichtenberg wrote. Whites tend to be defensive about racism, even hold feelings of guilt about it and deny its existence, social scientists say. Blacks, on the other hand, can be overly sensitive about racism and react to the potential for racism before it is there.
"You hear a lot of blacks screaming that racism is dripping off the trees, and you hear a lot of whites screaming 'I'm not racist! I have no animosity toward blacks,' " said Shelby Steele, a San Jose State University English professor and author of "The Content of Our Character." "Well, the truth is somewhere in between."
And the truth also is that "Even if 'racism-in-the-head' disappeared, then 'racism-in-the-world' would not," wrote Lichtenberg, because the socioeconomic and educational outcomes of blacks continue to be shaped, even if in part, by past disadvantage and present bias.
"There's a premium placed on white skin color in this culture and there's something of a deficit associated with black skin color," said Elijah Anderson, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist and author of "Streetwise: Race, Class and Change in an Urban Community." He, among many others, calls that deficit the "black tax" that is exacted by such practices as discrimination against blacks and the generalized fear of young black males.
But Charles Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of "Losing Ground," counters that the notion that blacks are at a disadvantage appears ridiculous to whites who are rankled about affirmative action. Those same people view their fears of young blacks as legitimate, considering that young black men commit a disproportionate amount of society's crime.
Speaking of the fear, Murray said, "Does that then lead to old-style racism? Of course it can . . . That translates into a generalization too easily whereby you get mad at all blacks and you treat all blacks as if they were about to mug you."
Such generalizations underpin the racial assumptions that pervade the society to such a degree that they are as common and taken for granted as the air we breathe, said David Wellman, a University of California at Santa Cruz sociologist and author of "Portraits of White Racism." Racism, he said, is "profound" in the way it shapes society's assumptions about who is deserving of success and who is not; whose culture is suspect and whose is not.
Listing white-collar criminals such as Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky and Charles H. Keating Jr. -- all white males who pleaded or were found guilty of financial swindles -- Wellman said, "Nobody was saying we need to explore the cultural values of those people to find out how they could do that. We don't use the cultural explanation when we talk about middle-class white males, but we really use the cultural explanation when we talk about poor black males and black females."
Joseph Feagin, a University of Florida sociologist working on his third book, called "Modern Racism: On Being Black and Middle Class," says that racism is deemed such an ugly, unpleasant issue that mainstream white society has constructed ways of obfuscating it. He cites a series of recent headlines from coverage of the aftermath of the Los Angeles disturbance in which the term "race" is used, but never "racism."
"Rethinking Race and Crime," said one headline. "Why Race Still Divides America and Its People," said another. In these depictions, race is treated as some "vague agent," says Feagin, like an effect without a cause. "We now use such vague concepts as 'race divides' as a way of describing conditions in an impersonal way, but the conditions of racial discrimination do have creators, and the creators are white Americans."
Andrew Hacker, a Queens College professor of political science and author of "Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile and Unequal," has said that the point of talking about racism is not to make whites feel guilty, but to get them to see racism's impact in shaping both the individual's and the society's behavior.
"The only way we can end the patterns of prejudice, both in behavior and in institutional outcomes, is to deconstruct the idea of race," said Manning Marable, professor of history at the University of Colorado and a researcher at the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race in America. Race is "an unequal relationship between social groups, rooted in power and privilege" -- in the American case, of white over black, said Marable.
Because of the historic relationship, both groups have grown accustomed to using their race as a source of power and entitlement, though in different ways and with different effects, said Steele.
Using the Rodney G. King case as an example, Steele said: "I think we had a largely white jury, and the feeling was that these people exerted their entitlement as whites to let these white officers off, and that it was a racially motivated impulse to identify more with the officers than with Rodney King, and so blacks felt that obviously they were being victimized racially. . . The people who tore up Los Angeles felt licensed by their racial victimization and felt this power to destroy this vast section of this city.
"Race is a source of power, unfortunately, in our society," Steele continued. "This is the most dangerous idea in American history, that power comes from race."