Dr. Lawrence D. Bobo
"What Do We Think about Race?"
Dr. Lawrence D. Bobo

I. Introduction

My task, in a sense, is to answer the question of whether America is moving toward becoming agenuinely "color-blind" society or remains a society deeply polarized by race. I approach this task as asocial scientist who has long studied the social psychology of race in America. Studies of racial attitudes inthe U.S. present a difficult puzzle. On the one hand, several recent studies emphasize the steadilyimproving racial attitudes of white Americans, especially in terms of their attitudes toward AfricanAmericans. These attitudinal trends are reinforced by many more tangible indicators, most notably the size,relative security, and potentially growing influence of the black middle class. On the other hand, there isevidence of persistent negative stereotyping of racial minorities, evidence of widely divergent views of theextent and importance of racial discrimination to modern race relations, and evidence of deepening feelingsof alienation among black Americans. These more pessimistic attitudinal trends are reinforced by suchtangible indicators as the persistent problem of racial segregation of neighborhoods and schools,discrimination in access to housing and employment, innumerable everyday acts of racial bias andnumerous signs of the gulf in perception that often separates black and white Americans

My remarks today will touch on five aspects of the research on racial attitudes: (1) thepredominant and important trend toward positive change concerning the goals of integration and equaltreatment; (2) the evident difficulty of moving from these goals to concrete support for change in socialpolicy and individual living conditions; (3) the problem of persistent stereotyping; (4) the differing viewsof racial discrimination; and (5) the possible deepening of black alienation. Wherever possible I emphasizetrends. It is essential to have a sense of whether and how much things have changed if we are to make senseof where we stand today or might head in the future. Although my remarks will emphasize what we knowabout the views of white Americans toward African Americans, I will cast a multiracial scope at severalimportant points.

By way of foreshadowing what is to come let me say that we now have a deeply rooted nationalconsensus on the ideals of racial equality and integration. These high ideals founder on racial differences inpreferred levels of integration; they founder on sharp racial differences in beliefs about racialdiscrimination; they founder on the persistence of negative racial stereotypes; and they result in policystagnation and mutual misunderstanding. Although America has turned away from Jim Crow racism, itheads into an uncertain future.

II. New Principles of Equality and Integration

The single clearest trend in studies of racial attitudes has involved a steady and sweepingmovement toward endorsing the principles of racial equality and integration. When major nationalassessments of racial attitudes were first conducted in the 1940s, clear majorities of white Americansadvocated that we be a society that segregated its schools, neighborhoods, and public transportation, thatpracticed job discrimination against African Americans, and that drew a sharp line against the possibility ofmixed or interracial marriages. Thus, in the early 1940s, 68% of white Americans expressed the view thatblack and white school children should go to separate schools, 54% felt that public transportation should besegregated, and 54% felt that whites should receive preference over blacks in access to jobs. By the early1960s each of these attitudes had declined substantially. So much so that the questions on publictransportation and access to jobs were dropped from national surveys in the early 1970s: virtually all whiteAmericans endorsed the idea that transportation should be integrated and that access to jobs should be equalwithout regard to race. The issue of integrated schools remained more divided. However, the trend here hasbeen equally steady. Thus, by 1995 fully 96% of white Americans expressed the view that white and blackschool children should go to the same schools.

Three points about this transformation of basic principles or norms that should guide race relationsbear noting. First, there is some variation across domains of life in the degree of endorsement of theprinciple of racial equality and integration. In general, the more public and impersonal the arena, thegreater the evidence of the movement toward endorsing ideals of integration and equality. Thus, supportfor unconstrained access to housing for blacks has also undergone tremendous positive change, but still lagsbehind the case of schools or jobs. More telling, willingness to allow racially mixed marriages stillencounters some resistance, with 1 in 5 whites as recently as 1990 supporting laws that would ban suchmarriages. And an even higher fraction, as the figure shows, personally disapproves of such marriages.

Second, African Americans have long rejected segregation. Although the available pool of datafor tracing long-term trends in the views of African Americans is much more limited than that for whites, itis clear that the black population has overwhelming favored integrated schools and neighborhoods anddesired equal access to employment opportunity.

Third, the positive trend on these principles across the domains of schools, public transportation,jobs, housing, politics, and even intermarriage is steady and unabated. Despite intense discussion of apossible "racial backlash" in the 1960s in response to black protests, or in the 1970s in response to schoolbusing efforts and the implementation of affirmative action, or even more recently in the wake of eventssuch as the riots in Los Angeles in 1992, the support for principles of racial equality and integration hasbeen sweeping and robust. So much so, that it is reasonable to describe it as a change in fundamental normswith regard to race.

III. The Complexity of Changing How We Live and What We Want Government to Do

Unfortunately, it is not possible to infer from the tremendous positive change on principles ofequality and integration that either public policy or the texture of day-to-day life for most Americans wouldquickly come to mirror this apparent consensus. Consider first the issue of integrating neighborhoods andschools. It is clear that numbers matter, as the figure shows. When surveys ask whites about theirwillingness to live in integrated areas or to send their children to integrated schools, as the proportion ofblacks rises the willingness to enter a situations falls. Surveys have documented a steady increase in theopenness to both residential and school integration. So much so, that almost no whites object to having ablack neighbor or to sending their own children to an integrated school. But objections rise considerably asthe number of black students grows.

The meaning of integration also differs for Blacks and Whites. It is clear that most whites prefer tolive in overwhelmingly white neighborhoods even though open to having a small number of blacks in theirneighborhood. Blacks prefer to be present in substantial numbers, numbers large enough to beuncomfortable in the eyes of most whites and impractical on a large scale basis: it is not possible, givendifferences in population size, for all blacks to live in a neighborhood that is at least half black.

With respect to public policy issues, we are all aware that there have been longstanding debatesover equal opportunity policies and affirmative action. The trend data suggest that there is a significantsubstantive division in opinion. Programs that are compensatory in nature--that aim to equip minorities tobe more effective competitors or that engage in special outreach and recruitment efforts--are reasonablypopular. Policies that call for explicit racial preferences have long been unpopular, with the use of quotasrejected by Whites and Blacks alike.

There is, however, a sharp divergence of opinion about affirmative action type policies by race aswell. As the next two figures, drawing on data from surveys conducted in Los Angeles, illustrate. Blacksbut also Latinos tend to support affirmative action type policies whether aimed at improving training andcompetitive resources of minority group members or calling for "special preferences" in hiring andpromotion. But a majority of whites support the more compensatory policies while resisting strongly"preferential" policies.

IV. Persistent Negative Stereotyping

A major piece of the puzzle behind the limits to integration and to social policy with respect torace lies in the problem of anti-minority, especially anti-Black stereotypes. There is evidence that negativeracial stereotypes of minority groups, especially of blacks and Latinos, remain common among whites. There is also evidence that minority groups may also stereotype one another, though the story here is a gooddeal more complicated. In a major national survey conducted in 1990, well over 50% of whites ratedBlacks and Latinos as less intelligent. Similar proportions rated Blacks and Latinos as prone to violence. Well over two-thirds rated blacks and Latinos as actually preferring to live off of welfare.

One example of such patterns is shown in the figure. Substantial fractions of whites rated Blacksand Latinos as less intelligent, as preferring to live off of welfare, and as hard to get along with socially. Research suggests that these stereotypes differ in several important ways from stereotypes that wereprevalent in the past. First, they are much more likely to be understood as the product of environmental andgroup cultural traditions than was true in the past. In the past, they were unequivocally taken as the productof natural endowment. Second, there is growing evidence that many whites are aware of traditionalnegative stereotypes of Blacks, anyone immersed in American culture would be, but personally reject thenegative stereotype and its implications. The problem is that in many face-to-face interactions, the oldcultural stereotype controls perception and behavior. The end result is bias and discrimination againstminorities.

V. Disagreement on the Prevalence of Racial Discrimination

In many ways, the centerpiece of the modern racial divide comes in the evidence of sharplydivergent beliefs about the current level, effect, and very nature of discrimination. Blacks and Latinos, andmany Asian Americans as well, feel it and perceive it in most domains of life. Many Whites acknowledgethat some discrimination remains, yet they tend to down play its contemporary importance. The figure givesan example of these perceptions.

However, minorities not only perceive more discrimination, they see it as more "institutional" incharacter. Many Whites tend to think of discrimination as either mainly an historical legacy of the past oras the idiosyncratic behavior of the isolated bigot. In short, to White America, the officers who beat AbnerLouima constitute a few bad apples. To African Americans, they are the tip of the iceberg. White Americaregards the Texaco tapes as shocking. To Black America the tapes merely reflect the ones who got caught.

But the difference in perception cuts deeper than this. For African Americans and Latinos (and toa lesser extent among Asians) modern racial bias and discrimination are central factors in the problem ofminority disadvantage. While many Whites recognize that discrimination plays some part in higher rates ofunemployment, poverty, and a range of hardships in life that minorities often face, the central cause isusually understood to be the level of effort and cultural patterns of the minority groups themselves. Forminorities, especially African Americans, if race remains a problem it is because of something about howour institutions operate. For whites, it is mainly something about minorities themselves.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the sharp divide over the understanding andexperience of racial discrimination to the present day racial impasse in America.

VI. Deepening Pessimism and Alienation

In many corners there is a feeling of pessimism about the state of race relations. A 1997 surveyconducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic research found that only 2 in 5 blacks ratedrelations in their community as "excellent" or "good" and that more than 1 in 5 rated race relations as "poor." In contrast, 59% of whites rated local race relations as "excellent" or "good" though better than 1 in ten ratedthem as "poor." The results of a recent Gallup survey are, in respects, more pessimistic. There, roughly athird of blacks and whites described race relations as having gotten worse in the past year. What is more,58% of blacks and 54% whites expressed the view that "relations between blacks and whites will always bea problem for the United States."

This problem takes the form of particularly acute cynicism and alienation among black Americans,though there are some signs of frustrations among Latinos and some Asians as well. Among blacks,University of Chicago political scientist Michael Dawson's National Black Politics Survey, conducted in1993, found that 86% of African Americans agreed with the statement that "American society just hasn'tdealt fairly with black people." Fifty-seven percent of African Americans rejected the idea that "Americansociety has provided black people a fair opportunity to get ahead in life." And 81% agreed with the ideathat "American society owes black people a better chance in life than we currently have."

A major survey of Los Angeles county residents that I conducted in 1992 shows that while blacks expressedthe highest and most consistently alienated views, an important fraction of the Latino and Asian populationdo so as well. Thus, for example, 64% of Latinos in L.A. County and 42% of Asians agreed with the ideathat their groups were owed a better chance in life. This places these two groups in between the high senseof deprivation observed among African Americans and the essentially non-existent feeling of deprivationobserved among whites.

The concern over black cynicism, however, is acute for two reasons. First, there are signs that thefeelings of alienation and deprivation are greatest in an unexpected place: among the black middle class,especially so among well-educated and high-earning African Americans. Second, there is a concern thatthese feelings of alienation and deprivation may be contributing to a weakening commitment to the goal ofracial integration. Among the potentially discouraging signs in this regard are a recent significant rise inthe number of African Americans who think it is time to form a separate national political party. The 1993National Black Politics Survey showed that this figure was at 50%, up substantially from about 30% in1984. In addition, African Americans continue to feel a strong connection between the fate of the group asa whole and that of the individual African American. Thus, the 1993 National Black Politics Study shows aslow but steady rise in the proportion of African Americans who expressed the view that there was a strongconnection between their fate as individuals and the fate of the group as a whole. This tendency isespecially pronounced among highly educated African Americans.

VII. Conclusions and Implications

The glass is half full or half empty, depending upon what one chooses to emphasize. If onecompares the racial attitudes prevalent in the 1940s with those commonly observed today, it is easy to beoptimistic. A nation once comfortable as a deliberately segregationist and racially discriminatory societyhas not only abandoned that view, but positively endorses the goal of racial integration and equal treatment. There is no sign whatsoever of retreat from this ideal despite many events that many thought would call itinto question. The magnitude, steadiness, and breadth of this change should be lost on no one.

The death of Jim Crow Racism has left us in an uncomfortable place, however, a place that Isometimes call a state of Laissez Faire racism. We have high ideals, but openness to very limited amountsof integration at the personal level remains; there is political stagnation over some types of affirmativeaction , quite negative stereotypes of racial minorities persist, and a wide gulf in perceptions regarding theimportance of racial discrimination remains. The level of misunderstanding and miscommunication is thuseasy to comprehend.

The positive patterns in attitude and belief have important parallels in more concrete social trends. Two examples. Matching the broad shift in attitudes on the principle of residential integration andopenness to at least small amounts of real racial mixing in neighborhoods is borne out in demographic datashowing modest declines in racial residential segregation in most metropolitan areas and in the growingsuburbanization of Blacks, Latinos and Asians. In addition, the greater tolerance for interracial marriages,including Black-white marriages, is mirrored in the significant rise in the number of such unions. (Thoughwe should always bear in mind that attitudes are but one important input to behavior. Most centrally,situational constraints, such as equal opportunity mandates and anti-discrimination laws or the expectationsof significant others in our lives, affect whether or not and when there is a correspondence betweenindividual attitude and behavior. And, of course, racial segregation remains a severe problem, and Black-White intermarriages are the least common form of racial intermarriage for Whites.)

Is it possible to change attitudes? The record of change that I have reviewed makes it plain thatattitudes can change and in important ways. Education and information can help. The better educated,especially those who have gone onto college, are typically found to express more positive racial attitudes. Itis also clear that many Americans hold inaccurate beliefs about the size of racial minority groups and aboutsuch social conditions as group differences in the level of welfare dependency. However, education andinformational campaigns are unlikely to do the job that remains ahead of us if we are to genuinely becomeone society in the next century. Attitudes are most likely to change when the broad social conditions thatcreate and reinforce certain types of outlooks change and when the push to make such change comes from aunited national leadership that speaks with moral conviction of purpose. That is, it is essential to speak tojoblessness and poverty in the inner city, to failing schools, and to myriad forms of racial bias anddiscrimination that people of color often experience, but have not yet effectively communicated to theirfellow White Americans.

To pose the question directly: Are we moving toward a color-blind society or toward deepeningracial polarization? America is not a color-blind society. We stand uncomfortably at a point of defeatingJim Crow racism, but unsure whether to, on the one hand, through benign neglect, allow the currentinequalities and polarizations to take deeper root, or, on the other hand, to face directly and proactively thechallenges of bias, miscommunication and racism that remain.

As a people, we feel quite powerfully the tug, the exhortation of Dr. King's dream to become anation that embodies the ideals of racial equality and integration. We appear to be at a point of uncertainty,misunderstanding and re-assessment. It is important to seize upon the steady commitment to ideals of racialequality and integration. The risk of failing to do so, is that a new, free-market ideology of racism--laissezfaire racism--may take hold, potentially worsening an already serious racial divide.

Meeting of The President's Advisory Board on Race

Dr. Reynolds Farley

Dr. Lawrence D. Bobo

Dr. James Jones

Dr. Dovidio's Presentation to the Board

Dr. Derald Wing Sue

Advisory Board Meeting Script

President and First Lady | Vice President and Mrs. Gore
Record of Progress | The Briefing Room
Gateway to Government | Contacting the White House | White House for Kids
White House History | White House Tours | Help
Privacy Statement


Site Map

Graphic Version

T H E   W H I T E   H O U S E