Friday, March 20, 2015

In race, experience more valuable than perception

previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, March 15th, 2015

Last week’s video of University of Oklahoma fraternity brothers regaling whomever with a racist chant captures our attention. Why? Is it really news that racism exists in the U.S.? Is this particular instance newsworthy because it is young people and for how many generations have we older folks forgiven ourselves by thinking the next generation will be better and lo and behold we find they are not? Is it because so many white folks seem to think racism is not much of a problem and then to have it so glaringly staining sons of the middle class?

Putting aside the predictable outrage, and those who would blame black culture for the brothers’ racist chant, those who are serious about the state of relations between black and whites should point to the black and white differences in perceptions about things in this country. “Black” and “white” may serve as common labels for racial identity but it also describes how blacks and whites view many issues that confront us.

There are sharp differences in how blacks and whites perceive things in the U.S. Not surprisingly, there is a sharp difference in how the criminal justice system is viewed. In data from August 2013, The Pew Research Center asked blacks and whites about “how blacks are treated in your community.” The differences (point differences in parentheses) in those reporting “less fairly than whites” is wide:  By the police (32); in the courts (40); on the job or at work (38); in stores or restaurants (28); in local public schools (36); in getting health care (33); when voting in elections (36). Pew reporting on public opinion on the death penalty in 2011 showed a 35-point difference in support for the death penalty (whites over 70 percent and blacks half that). All this before the police shootings of unarmed black males in Ferguson, Cleveland, in a Wal-Mart or choked to death for selling cigarettes.

This is not new, either. The American Enterprise Institute, citing Gallup surveys, points out that in 1993, 68 percent of blacks said that the American justice system was biased against black people and after 20 years that percentage has not changed. A third of whites in 1993 thought the system was biased and 20 years later that percentage has dropped to a quarter.

What lies beneath these perceptual differences? Reality. Asking about experiences gets us closer to reality. In a study of Georgia youth (18-29 years old) those kinds of questions were asked in relation to gun violence and gun control (; 46.2 percent of whites compared to 24.4 percent of blacks reported either they or someone they knew had carried a gun in the last month (the previous month did not cover hunting season). While whites were more likely to be around guns, it is blacks who experience gun violence, 22.5 percent of blacks compared to 8.3 percent of whites reported themselves or knowing someone who was a victim of gun violence in the last year.

These experiential differences probably lie at the heart of black/white differences in views on restricting access to guns versus the rights of gun owners as well as why black and white youth have a large perceptual difference on whether gun violence is a problem in their community (27 point difference). The point is that perceptual differences are not just a matter of perspective but of experience as well. The report from the Justice Department on Ferguson demonstrates the differences in how black and white Fergusonians are treated by the police.

Even on tax fairness blacks and whites differ. In a study by Georgia State University (, in terms of viewing different kinds of taxes as fair, there is a 15-point difference in the state income tax, a 27-point difference in the sales tax, and a 7-percent difference in the property tax. I suspect that there is also an experiential difference at the foundation of these perceptual differences, too.

We can argue all day over whose perception is closest to reality. Let’s try moving to discussing experiences, it gets us past “that’s your opinion.” We can ask why the police disproportionately ticket one group over another; why are blacks given longer and harsher sentences for similar crimes? It get us past acting shocked when the scions of the middle class are caught with their white hoods on and expelling them (making them victims and generating sympathy for them) and onto asking why did they think this was OK?

Thomas L. Steiger is a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Student Research and Creativity at Indiana State University. Email
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