Doublespeak on “race relations”

By Michelle Chen Apr 30, 2009

If you believe the polls, about two in three Americans believe race relations are now “generally good"–a significant increase since July 2008. The number of Black people who feel this way is also up sharply. Similarly, more people, among Blacks and whites, say they’ve seen "a lot of real progress getting rid of racial discrimination against Blacks" since the 1960s. That was promising news to Gwen Ifill on National Public Radio:

“People feel better about themselves when it comes to race. They feel they have permission to have a conversation. It doesn’t mean that we are through with the conversation, it does not mean we are past that… I think it means we are beginning to talk about it.”

Yet the portion of people who think Blacks and whites have an “equal chance of getting ahead” actually dipped a little since last October, from 64 to 60 percent (62 percent of whites, 44 percent of Blacks), though that’s still up from 51 percent in last summer’s poll. Maybe people can still "feel better" about improving race relations even as they realize that racial inequalities in opportunity persist. The poll might be missing a lot, but maybe this captures some of the ambiguity in how society views "race relations" versus structural injustice. john powell, who is heading an initiative called Americans for American Values explored this racial double vision in an interview with Isaiah Poole of Campaign for America’s Future (h/t Blog for Our Future):

“What those polls measures are conscious attitudes… They can honestly say, ‘No I try not to discriminate, or I don’t discriminate, or I treat all people the same.’ But what we found is that what they’re telling us is what they consciously know. … They can’t tell you how their unconscious affects their behavior along racial lines. And the research shows that unconscious bias is actually fairly high throughout the whole population. And it can be manipulated, or influenced, by the showing of images, telling of stories, hearing certain buzzwords.”

So while Americans may hold certain beliefs on how to deal publicly with race—shaped by peer attitudes, political catch phrases, and yes, opinion polls—they may be less cognizant of how these ideas are realized, or ignored, by institutions that determine the structure of social opportunity. Powell looks at “racialization” as a counterpoint to “race relations.” Racialization goes beyond the question of disliking people who look different and tackles the ways that institutions and policies affect or perpetuate inequality (e.g.the fallacies of "race neutral" and "race blind" policies in housing and education). He recently wrote in the Denver University Law Review:

It is not that we do not know that there is still persistent racial inequality in our society, but we have a story line that allows us to justify and explain this fact when it rudely intrudes into our otherwise public stance that race does not matter. We tell each other stories about the culture of poverty and the lack of personal and collective responsibility in racially marginal communities. We talk about segregation from opportunity in terms of choice, of people just wanting to live with their own. We become armchair sociologists, uninterested and unconcerned with the facts and even less aware of institutional arrangements and the work they do.

None of this subrosa complexity could, of course, be captured in a multiple-choice opinion survey. To grasp that, we’re better off asking questions of ourselves. If the election boosted hopes about moving ahead on race, America remains adrift when it comes to defining what we mean by progress. Image: Tribune Media Services