Survey: What Explains Racial Disparities?

In a national survey, we asked people why the American Dream turns nightmarish for many people of color. Big majorities blame class. But whites are more likely to point to individual initiative, while blacks in particular see race as a problem.

By Dom Apollon Aug 15, 2011

"In the United States, people who work hard generally succeed in life."

You could argue that those 12 simple words sum up the theory of American life since the nation’s founding, and studies show wide agreement across demographics with this statement–even if the realities in most of our communities are far different. In a society and culture unparalleled in its ability to dramatically celebrate personal success stories–whether they be in business, entertainment, sports or education–support is firm for the abstract principle that hard work equals success.

But the data on racial, ethnic, and class-based disparities in fact suggest a more complex explanation for who makes it in America. Unemployment among African Americans is nearly twice that of the national rate. The wealth gap between whites and blacks and Latinos is larger than ever. In education, job advancement and even personal health, people of color lag behind whites on a wide range of measures. Unless our nation’s egalitarian creed–that all human beings are created equal–is a lie, the vast majority of the poor and working-class and huge swaths of communities of color clearly have not had equal access to the American Dream.

So what do Americans believe explain those disparities? In a national survey conducted by’s publisher, the Applied Research Center, we found that a widespread agreement with the abstract ideal of an American Dream doesn’t extend to a consensus about what causes different levels of success or failure between races. The majority of all races point to multiple causes, and large majorities include class as an explanation. But while whites were more likely to blame individual initiative alone, African Americans in particular were more likely to point to race as at least part of the problem.

The survey, conducted in mid May, included almost 2,400 adult respondents drawn from a national sample of volunteers from SurveyMonkey’s millions of users.

[A brief note of methodology for those who care: Respondents did not know the content of the survey beforehand, nor did they know it was being conducted for People of all ages and races were included, and we received responses from Puerto Rico and 49 states (where you at, Idaho?). To improve the national reliability of our findings, we weighted the responses according to the latest Census data on race/ethnicity and state populations. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough American Indians in our sample to provide reliable results for that important group.]

When asked about the abstract idea above–"In the United States, people who work hard generally succeed in life"–overwhelming majorities said they either "strongly agree" or "agree." At least two-thirds of each of the four largest races and ethnicities in the country registered support for the statement, while no more than 16 percent in any group said they "strongly disagree" or "disagree."

But what happens when you ask Americans the extent to which they agree with a related statement that unpacks the implications of the hard work-equals-success idea?

"In the United States, people who have not succeeded in life generally failed to work hard enough and/or failed to take advantage of opportunities to better themselves."

Well, support for that statement drops precipitously in comparison to the first. Between 34 percent and 43 percent of Americans still agree, depending on their race/ethnicity, but in no group does that statement garner a majority.

So we can conclude that while most people reflexively agree that hard work leads to success in this country, that doesn’t necessarily mean they believe that "failure," or lack of success, means a person is lazy. And that’s a good thing for those of us who believe in racial justice, right? It suggests that an explicit re-framing of the conversation about the American Dream to focus on those who are not achieving success could fall on empathetic ears.

That’s assuming, of course, that people view the "failures" of people of other races and ethnicities as equal to their own. Unfortunately we can’t draw that conclusion from our survey.

We asked our survey respondents about three potential factors in creating those disparities: individual initiative (or lack thereof), race and class. (On the latter two, we asked respondents specifically about both discrimination as a cause and about differences in resources/opportunities as another possible cause). Opinions vary across racial groups as to which of these three factors best explain, either exclusively or in some combination, the racial disparities in our country.

When it comes to people who believe individual initiative is the one and only explanation for racial disparities in our society, whites agree at almost double the rate of any other group. Take this 47-year old, self-described conservative woman from Georgia, who wrote in an optional comment section on this question in our survey, "I personally know several wealthy black individuals as well as several wealthy white individuals. The common theme is hard work."

The woman described her upbringing as upper middle-class. But our results showed that class background had a statistically insignificant effect on agreement or disagreement with the idea that individual initiative is the sole determinant of success. [That’s more methodology talk. Translation: Class background didn’t have any real impact on respondents’ answer to this question.] It’s not surprising however that, holding all other factors constant, conservative ideology was the most reliable predictor for agreement with this idea. A "slightly conservative" white working-class woman from Pennsylvania wrote, "I am sick of people who don’t want to get off their asses and do something for themselves without it being handed to them……black, white, Asian, latino…we are all guilty of the ‘entitlement mentality.’ "

But while conservative ideology was the best predictor of agreement, whiteness still exhibited its own statistically significant, independent effect. Meanwhile, a majority of white respondents pointed to individual initiative as at least part of the explanation for disparities in achievement. Fewer than half of all people of color groups said the same, including less than 40 percent of blacks agreed.

A majority of people of color, however, believe that racial disparities can be explained at least in part by racial factors. In contrast, only 37 percent of whites think race-based factors are part of the cause.

The data show that even controlling for other factors, clearly African Americans are more likely to see race as part of the explanation. That means that while white liberals were certainly more likely than white conservatives to believe racial disparities were caused by race-based discrimination or lack of resources, they were less likely to believe so when compared to black liberals. Take for example, a 31-year old black male from Nevada, who believed all three types of factors played a role. "It began with minorities not being given the rights to pursue and obtain what was readily available to whites. And that has evolved into a system that still discriminates and limits minorities. And now a wide range of minorities don’t feel they will ever be treated equally or be on a "level playing field" with whites, so work ethic and initiative–if they exist at all–are extremely low and flawed."

Interestingly, when it comes to class as a factor, our national survey generated similar findings to those we’ve seen in our ongoing focus group research on the racial attitudes of Millennials. A minority of all racial groups believe that class is more important than race or ethnicity in determining racial disparities in achievement. About 18 to 19 percent of whites and Latinos and 14 percent of blacks and Asian Americans felt class exclusively provided the best explanation for the racial and ethnic disparities in our society. "Finally a question that gets close to the problem," wrote a 65-year old white liberal male from New York. "It is money and purely money that succeeds and allows for educational advancement."

If we expand the analysis to those who simply included class-based factors as one of multiple important explanations for achievement disparities, we find super majorities of blacks and Latinos and high majorities of other groups. In fact, class was the only one of the three factors suggested for driving disparities that garnered majorities of all four racial and ethnic groups–whites, Latinos, blacks and Asian Americans.

"Generally speaking success requires some luxuries that are not plausible for lower income families. Higher education, time (lower wage means more hours and less pay)," wrote a 28-year old, moderate Puerto Rican woman from Georgia. "Poor people of all races have more in common with each other than with better off people of their own races," wrote a liberal, white 58-year old woman from Nevada with a high school education.

So ultimately, what can we conclude from this data?

As I said before, there’s cross-racial consensus that hard work generally leads to success in this country and that lack of success doesn’t mean an individual didn’t work hard. But we have very different explanations for the most glaring failure of our entire society–the persistent racial disparities in achievement and well-being across so many issue areas.

Collectively, we shrug our shoulders at the persistence of what need not be unbridgeable gaps of understanding. But there’s one more piece of data that’s encouraging. Young people (ages 18 to 25) are only about 65 percent as likely as older Americans to view individual initiative as the exclusive explanation for success. Like Blacks and Latinos, they are also more likely to select more than just one type of explanation. Nuance is not our enemy, and with proactive efforts, it can be our collective future consensus, as well.