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Is Racial Prejudice On The Rise?

Oct 31, 2012
Originally published on October 31, 2012 12:18 pm



This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program we are going to talk about the impact of Superstorm Sandy on some places you might not be hearing much about. In the Caribbean, especially in Haiti, for example, the damage includes a significant loss of life. We'll try to find out why in a few minutes.

But first there is another poll we want to talk about. Like many news organizations, we've been keeping up with many of the polls about the presidential race and other political races, but there's another poll we wanted to dig into that may - may - speak to something even more profound and long-lasting in American life.

It's a recent poll conducted by the Associated Press that suggests that prejudice against African-Americans and Hispanics has actually increased since 2008. In fact, the poll says, more than half of all Americans have anti-black and anti-Latino attitudes. We wanted to talk more about this so we've called upon NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam.

He has been looking closely at research about the science of racial attitudes and he's with us once again. Welcome back. Thank you for joining us once again.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Thanks so much for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: According to the Associated Press, 51 percent of Americans, quote, express explicit anti-black attitudes and that compares with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey. And then the survey says that when you count in what they call implicit racial attitudes, the numbers are even higher. They're also higher for Latinos. Why do you think that might be?

VEDANTAM: Well, these attitudes obviously have been around for a fairly long time. So the AP has conducted these surveys in 2008, 2010 and 2012, but long before this cycle of the presidential elections, long before Barack Obama, in fact, you know, was even running for president, these attitudes have been around for a very long time.

When the survey says explicit, I want to clarify something. So when you ask most Americans, do you have active hostility against blacks, do you actually dislike blacks, do you feel that you wouldn't want your white daughter to marry a black man, most people say no. Most people deny having that kind of explicit prejudice.

What the researchers here - the AP teamed up with people from Stanford University and elsewhere - what they did was they asked slightly more subtle questions. And in terms of those subtle questions, they found the negative attitudes towards African-Americans had risen over the last four years. Slightly, but they had risen.

MARTIN: And slightly means what? As I understand it, you actually talked to the researchers and they believe that it is.

VEDANTAM: Yeah. I spoke with Jon Krosnick. He's a researcher at Stanford University. And he explained to me that the three percentage point difference that they found in the increase in negative racial attitudes was significant, but he also pointed out that it was small. So I mean for all intents and purposes, I think it's fair to say negative attitudes towards African-Americans have largely remained stable in the last four years of Barack Obama's presidency.

One of the hypotheses in some ways that the AP and the researchers were trying to address was, would having a black president, you know, somebody in a position of authority and dignity, would that change racial attitudes in some significant way? Would that change and make people feel more positive towards African-Americans? And I think it's fair to say that what the survey is finding is the answer is no.

MARTIN: We actually touched on this earlier this week in a conversation about the presidential race explicitly, and we spoke about this with Janice Crouse, who is an analyst with a conservative group, Concerned Women for America. They have a think tank, a research organization attached to that, and this is what she had to say.


JANICE CROUSE: I think this has been the most racially divisive president in my memory. I have been just astounded at the times when President Obama has adopted ebonics, for instance. When the president talks to a Southern audience he adopts a Southern accent. It's just - I think what you're seeing is a reflection of that.

MARTIN: She's suggesting that the president has - for example, embracing his African-American identity, has been - at the times when he has done that - has been off-putting to whites.

VEDANTAM: Well, first, I think it bears some repeating that politicians tend to focus on who they're talking to and they tend to be aware of that and Barack Obama's hardly the first politician to say, you know, I'm going to change how I talk or what I say depending on what my audience is.

But the idea that this presidency has been so racially divisive and that's caused these attitudes, I don't think the evidence really supports that. Because again, if you look at these attitudes, they pre-date Obama by a very long period of time. What's fair to say is that Obama doesn't seem to have had much impact on changing those attitudes. But it would be a long stretch to say Obama actually caused those attitudes.

MARTIN: In the same conversation, we spoke with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and now journalism professor, Cynthia Tucker. This is what she had to say.


CYNTHIA TUCKER: On the right wing, from Fox News to Rush Limbaugh, there is this continual drumbeat of accusations of racism by Obama, which are absolutely not true. But this is the accusation they make.

MARTIN: What do you think about that?

VEDANTAM: You know, again, it's sort of hard to say. This is sort of an empirical question. But if you were to ask me, I would say given the fact these attitudes have been resilient for so long, it doesn't seem to be the case that the explanations for these attitudes are proximal, that they're not tied to things that are happening, you know, right in the here and now.

The other thing to point out is that, you know, with a lot of the conservative and liberal, you know, talk shows and television networks, you often have audiences that already agree with the hosts who are the primary audience. Right? I mean so a lot of these people are preaching to the choir.

So it's not as if, you know, Rush Limbaugh, you know, is sort of making people think a certain way. It's Rush Limbaugh's offering a message. People who agree with that message to begin with are coming to Rush Limbaugh. It's an echo chamber. So it's not so much changing the dynamic as perhaps reinforcing the dynamic.

So I think you can make some argument that the media plays some role in perhaps reinforcing this attitude, solidifying them. I think it would be a stretch to say the media is creating these attitudes in the first place.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and we're digging into a recent poll by the Associated Press that suggests that more than half of Americans hold prejudicial attitudes toward African-Americans and Latinos. And the polls suggest that those numbers have actually increased slightly since 2008.

We're digging into this with NPR's science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam. He does extensive research and thinks often about the science behind racial attitudes, and other attitudes, we should say. Shankar, I'm so glad you're here because I wanted to dig into a couple of things about the poll that particularly jumped out to me. One is the poll suggests that the influence of racial attitudes on approval of Mr. Obama's job performance actually decreased between 2010 and 2012. Had less influence. Why might that be?

VEDANTAM: Well, just to step back a second. So this poll is part of a larger body of research that suggests that the attitudes we have about a whole bunch of things might play a very important role when it comes to our policy decisions and who we like or dislike as president. And so most people think that their attitudes about who they like as president is driven purely by the president's job performance.

And what this research literature is basically suggesting is that our attitudes about a whole bunch of things (unintelligible) are completely unrelated to policy are in fact playing a role when it comes to policy decisions. Now, when it comes to judgments about the president, racial attitudes are far from being the only issue that influences attitudes toward the president.

There could be lots of other things. We live in very partisan times. We live in very divided times. There's a lot of media coverage. There's a lot of advertising that we are being bombarded with. All of these factors are probably playing a role. Why racial attitudes in particular might be playing slightly less of a role than they did four years ago, I'm not sure I know the answer.

MARTIN: But noteworthy, the poll suggests that sizeable proportions of both Democrats and Republicans expressed anti-black attitudes, although the poll says anti-black attitudes were more common among Republicans than Democrats.

VEDANTAM: That's right. And again, these anti-black attitudes are looking at measures that have been developed over the last 20 or 30 years which say if people aren't going to come right out and say I dislike blacks, what is it that they are willing to say in public?

And what this poll gets at is questions such as, you know, if other minority groups such as, you know, the Irish or the Italians or the Jews worked their way through prejudice and became successful, do you think African-Americans could do the same? Do you believe that African-Americans, if they only worked a little bit harder, they could actually be successful?

Do you believe that slavery has an enduring legacy today? It's the response to these questions that determine how the researchers concluded people have either positive or negative attitudes towards African-Americans and what they are finding is that these negative attitudes are predicting negative job approval ratings for Obama. But it's also fair to say, and important to point out, that positive attitudes toward Obama are also implicated, increasing his job approval ratings. So these things work in complicated ways. It's, sort of, not an easy answer.

MARTIN: But speaking of complicated, right, according to the AP researchers, a similar percentage - in fact, a slightly higher percentage of Americans - expressed anti-Latino attitudes. What do you think that's about?

VEDANTAM: Well, I mean, again to step back a second, these attitudes are built on fairly enduring foundations. Right? They go back a very long period of time. So immediate events, you know, have some effect on these attitudes, but probably not a huge amount.

We had a big debate about immigration issues, for example. We had legislation that was discussed in Congress. Should we be passing this legislation? It's possible that discussing illegal immigration or discussing how this plays out might influence attitudes about Latinos.

But again, the important thing to remember here, I think, Michel, is not so much that, you know, an attitude has gone up a little bit, gone down a little bit, that it has a slightly greater effect on job approval ratings or a slightly lesser amount, but how enduring these attitudes are. That if you go back 100 years, 200 years, to today, these attitudes are fairly sizeable.

MARTIN: So for you, Shankar, is the news here not that so many people have anti-black and anti-Latino attitudes, but that rather so many people don't?

VEDANTAM: Well, you know, a sizeable number of people actually do not. It's true. But I think, certainly, in terms of how people think about themselves the news really has to be the idea that we believe - or most Americans believe - that we live in a colorblind society.

And so when you ask people do you believe that race plays a role in your decision-making, most people say no, it doesn't, that I just judge the issues for what they are. And what this research, along with a whole bunch of other research, has shown is that that's simply not the case. That race continues to play an enduring role in American public life.

MARTIN: And finally, before we let you go, and this might be out of your wheelhouse, but you'll note that there has been - as we heard in the earlier comment from the commentator Janice Crouse - there seems to be this criticism of Obama among some whites and perhaps some blacks, that the president speaks more than they would like him to, about race.

But one also has to note that one of the criticisms of Obama by progressives and particularly some African-American media figures in particular - like Tavis Smiley, or like Cornel West, the Princeton professor - is that is in their view the president doesn't speak enough about African-Americans. So is it damned if he does, damned if he doesn't scenario?

VEDANTAM: I think this really speaks to, sort of, the role that, you know, we believe that we are judging, you know, external reality for what it is but really what we are doing most of the time is we're judging external reality by the internal standards that we have. Right?

And so it's not surprising that the same president with the same actions, you know, progressive blacks are going to say, look, this guy doesn't talk about race at all; and conservative whites are going to say good god, he talks about race all the time. And it's the same guy doing the same thing. Right? And this really speaks, I think, to the psychology of human beings, less about President Obama.

MARTIN: NPR's science correspondent Shankar Vedantam was with us once again in our Washington D.C. studios. Shankar, thank you so much for joining us.

VEDANTAM: Thanks for having me, Michel.


MARTIN: Coming up, Halloween is a day when many people like to change up their look but a certain New Yorker has been doing that for months now, sporting a big curly afro wig and, oh, yeah - she's white.

MICHELLE JONI-LAPIDOS: The afro is meant to be kind of a symbol of anything that makes you look at things in a different way. But that is not how the public had taken it.

MARTIN: The voice behind the Before and Afro blog is with us to tell us about the interesting reactions to her new 'do. That's next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.