Nearly two decades ago, when retired football star O.J. Simpson was acquitted of the murder of his white wife and her friend, a sobering reality of the nation’s racial divide was laid bare: blacks and whites often look at the same set of facts and see different truths. Surveys found that the vast majority of African Americans agreed with the O.J. verdict; most whites did not. The ongoing reaction to the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo. two months ago, makes clear that the divide continues.
An insightful story by our Post colleague Robert Samuels this morning showed that whites in Ferguson were often surprised by the racial fault lines exposed by the shooting and the sometimes angry protests that followed. They said they had no idea of the simmering tensions between African Americans and police. They did not know that many black residents felt unfairly targeted by the police and unrepresented by city government. And they bristled when protesters portrayed their town as racist.
It turns out that whites' limited awareness about racial problems in Ferguson goes well beyond the St. Louis suburb. A series of surveys in recent years about Americans’ perceptions of the very existence of racism and racial disparities in our society shows that white people believe the problem of racial bias against blacks has effectively faded as a national issue.
Work by Harvard University professor Michael I. Norton, who examined data from a series of polls through the years, found in 2011 that although both blacks and whites believe anti-black racism has diminished through the decades, whites tend to think it has been all but eliminated.
In many cases, he found, white perceptions of racial disparities diverge far from reality.
For instance, two-thirds of blacks think that African Americans earn make less money than whites, a view in line with official statistics. But just 37 percent of whites believe that blacks make less money than whites, and a narrow majority think black and white’ incomes are about the same. Also, although many objective health measures suggest blacks are in worse overall health than whites, a majority of whites think blacks and whites are equally healthy.
So it is no surprise that just 16 percent of whites believe that there is “a lot” of discrimination in America today, a view held by 56 percent of blacks. What may be surprising is that the polls found that white perceptions of anti-black bias have diminished to the point where they are more now likely to think anti-white discrimination is a bigger problem than bias against blacks. The chart below is from Norton's work.
“It seems to be the case that people take markers of progress differently,” Norton said. “If you are searching around for evidence of continued racism, or you are searching for proof of evidence of a lack of racism, there are always ambiguous findings. “
He explained that the election of a black president to many whites symbolized a culmination of a long march of racial progress, whereas many blacks viewed it as one more step toward a goal that has not yet been achieved.
These differing perceptions were especially vivid in recent polling int he wake of the shooting in Ferguson. A Pew Poll found that overwhelming numbers of blacks believe the events in Ferguson raise important issues about race. They also said the police response went too far, and they lacked confidence in the ongoing shooting investigation.
By contrast, nearly half of whites thought race was getting too much attention in the case, and they were ambivalent about the police response. They also said they had more confidence in the investigation than blacks.