A highly reputable study released earlier this week sought to discern and reveal what African Americans think about racial discrimination in their daily experiences, only to have its findings hijacked by media reports that focused on the more than half of white Americans who believe they’re victims of racial discrimination.
Researchers affiliated with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University, and the National Public Radio polled 3,453 adults nationwide earlier this year to discern the degree that Americans feel racism affects them personally. The first of their reports, “Discrimination in America: Experiences and Views of African Americans,” was released Tuesday to illustrate black Americans’ personal experiences of racism and discrimination. However, the report made headlines for its few, isolated data points that found more than half of white Americans respondents — 55 percent — believe that they or people like them suffer from racial discrimination. Subsequent reports are scheduled to be released every week or so and highlight responses from samples of Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, whites, men, women, and LGBTQ adults. (This is how the study identifies these communities.)
Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis in both the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, expressed frustration over the media decision to highlight what he called “10 percent of the study” to overlook the 90 percent that was about black views of discrimination. “The individual problems reported by white Americans are not of the same scale as reported by black Americans,” Blendon said. “It’s just turned out to be odd that all the news coverage took to reporting the aggregate views of white respondents as the major news of this report.”
The survey’s first question asked all respondents to assess: “Generally speaking, do you believe there is or is not discrimination against (respondent’s own group identity) in America today?” Not surprisingly, black respondents were nearly unanimously in agreement there is discrimination against them (92 percent). Equally predictable were the affirmative answers from Latinos (78 percent), Native Americans (77 percent), Asian Americans (61 percent) and LGBTQ individuals (90 percent).
Among the key findings, African Americans told researchers that they experienced institutional racism and individual discrimination and shared perceptions of how it affected them locally. For example:
- African Americans experienced being discriminated against when being considered for a promotion (57 percent), applying for a job (56 percent), interacting with police (50 percent), or trying to rent or buy housing (45 percent). They reported that they or family members have been unfairly stopped by police (60 percent) or treated unfairly by courts (45 percent).
- Compared to Black women, Black men report experiencing more discrimination when interacting with police (57 percent versus 44 percent), with people acting afraid of them because of their race (57 percent versus 26 percent), and when trying to rent or buy housing (54 percent versus 39 percent).
- African Americans report people making negative assumptions or insensitive or offensive comments about their race (52 percent).
- Higher-income African Americans (making more than $75,000 per year) are more likely than lower-earning African Americans (making less than $25,000 per year) to have personally experienced various forms of individual discrimination because of their race (65 percent versus 40 percent).
- African Americans living in suburban areas are more likely to report experiencing violence then those in urban settings (48 percent versus 32 percent).
- Most African Americans agree that in the areas where they live, African Americans have fewer employment opportunities (71 percent); are paid less than white people (61 percent); and have less of an opportunity to give their children a quality education compared to the education that white children receive (64 percent).
For the most part, those findings were downplayed, if found at all, in media accounts of the study, distorting the intent of the researchers to give full attention to black attitudes about racial discrimination.
The collaborative agreement among the sponsors of the study was that each demographic group would have its findings released with a separate report and discussion event. Additionally, NPR planned a week of news reports under the banner, “You, Me and Them: Experiencing Discrimination in America” that would focus on findings from each group. But the factoid about white attitudes stole the show, as other media accounts seized on the data points about white feelings out of the 28-page report on African Americans’ attitudes or from the forum on the findings Tuesday at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
If news managers believe their audience is primarily white Americans, then the story has to be about how the study affects them. How else could reporters resist 68-year-old Tim Hershman of Akron, Ohio, who told NPR that white Americans are victims of racism? “If you apply for a job, they seem to give the blacks the first crack at it and, basically, you know, if you want any help from the government, if you’re white, you don’t get it,” Hershman said. “If you’re black, you get it.”
Hershman’s opinion is grossly misguided. In fact, the study showed that relatively small percentages of white respondents could point to specific examples of being personally discriminated against because of their race, for example, when applying for a job (19 percent), being paid equally or considered for a promotion (13 percent), or applying to or while at college (11 percent).
Regardless of the veracity, widespread racial misconceptions harbor real-world consequences, often to the disadvantage of black Americans and other racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. To be sure, the political strategies employed by President Donald Trump feeds lies about white fears to keep his base of far-right conservative white Americans solidly supportive of his administration.
Jamil Smith, a Los Angeles based writer, made precisely this point in a recent Washington Post op-ed, noting the president appealed to white racial antagonism in his recent acts of disrespect shown toward Myeshia Johnson, the Gold Star widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed during a mission in Niger. He wrote:
We’ve been talking too much about white people and their anger since Trump started running for president, really… That’s partly why the president was able to get so many (mostly white) Americans to believe the fiction that kneeling athletes were Betsy Ross blasphemers. Those attitudes give Trump license to make targets of outspoken sports commentators and various members of Congress — especially if they’re women of color, his favorite opponents. The act of not believing black folks or performing confusion about our anger has social currency as well, since it makes it look as though we are all crying wolf. Even when we’re talking about a pregnant military widow, perhaps the most sympathetic character in the entire American story.
If you’ve ever wondered whether black people fixate about racial discrimination too much, the reporting surrounding the study of African Americans’ attitudes toward race in America is a horribly revealing example of how white privilege reshapes, refocuses and recalibrates African American concerns to a subordinate place, elevating fake-news reactions of white people to pinnacle of the national conversation. Indeed, even when there’s supporting evidence, as in the case of this study, to demonstrate just what black people are shouting about, their opinions are easily and routinely drowned out by cries of nonsensical white fears.