- Special Reports
New poll shows Americans view race as of little importance indetermining one’s success in life. But some scholars argue that thesurvey is a `crude’ way to measure such a complex issue.
Almost all Americans consider education and hard work to be themost important factors in achieving succeed in life. Race, according toa new Gallup poll, is considered relatively unimportant — even,perhaps surprisingly, among many African Americans.
The poll, titled “Haves and Have-Nots: Perceptions of Fairness andOpportunity,” asked 5,001 adults a series of thirty-nine questionsabout their economic status and their perceptions about what it takesto succeed in America today.
Ninety-two percent said that hard work, initiative, and getting thefight education or training were very important, compared to 33 percentwho said gender was important and 30 percent who said race or ethnicitywas important. Among Whites, race and ethnicity came out twelfth inimportance, but even among Blacks and Hispanics it was only tenth andeleventh, respectively. Other factors that were considered moreimportant than race but less important than education were parents andfamily, connections and knowing the fight people, good looks, inheritedmoney, and good luck.
Dr. Orlando Patterson, a professor of sociology at HarvardUniversity, says that the Gallup poll results tally with other data.
“African Americans say race is important, but they have it inperspective. They say education is the critical factor. And they arefight,” he says.
Patterson, whose forthcoming book, Rituals of Blood: Consequencesof Slavery in Two American Centuries, explores the role race has playedin America, says that the Gallup poll results should not be surprising.
“It’s only surprising if one looks only at what African Americanleaders say. But it’s been a long time now that African Americans havebeen playing down race and saying it is not important,” says Patterson,who adds that African Americans have always emphasized education.
“When you read the interviews with ex-slaves, they knew thateducation was the key,” he says, although he also notes, “In myfather’s generation, not having a college degree was not catastrophic”compared with today, when a college degree has become more fled toeconomic success.
Dr. Raymond Winbush, director of Fisk University’s Race RelationsInstitute, had a different take on the poll results, which he agreesare consistent with previous Gallup polls.
“Fish never feel water because they’re in it. Sometimes you can be so immersed in racism you don’t feel it,” he says.
Poor people, Winbush says, aren’t in a position to recognize theimportance race plays in whether people achieve success or not.
“I know this sounds so elitist, [but they] can’t do the socialanalysis,” he explains. “I grew up poor in Cleveland. We weren’tconcerned about broad sweeping trends. We were concerned with immediateproblems.”
Senior scientist Jack Ludwig, who directed the poll for Gallup agrees with Winbush — up to a point.
“I believe there is something to that,” says Ludwig, who cites datafrom a Gallup poll on race that was released in 1997 which indicatedthat African Americans with more education and higher incomes identifyrace as a more significant factor than lower income African Americans.
And separate polling by the Joint Center for Political and EconomicStudies showed that as income and educational levels increased, AfricanAmericans assigned a greater importance to the influences of race.
“It’s not clear whether that is a consciousness issue or thefirst-hand experience that African Americans have [from learning] thatit is difficult to get ahead in the corporate world,” Ludwig says.
Dr. Karen Rosenblum, a sociologist and vice president foruniversity life at George Mason University, said that the Gallup pollis “a crude measure” of attitudes toward race and matches what peoplewant to believe more than what they really believe. She cited a studydone by the Urban Institute a few years ago in which job seekers werematched for education, appearance and credentials and were giventraining so they would present similarly. In that study, the AfricanAmerican applicants did not get nearly as far in the interview processas the White applicants.
“They saw at what point in a job search Blacks got kicked out,”Rosenblum says, showing that race plays a bigger role in success thanis often credited by most Americans.
Still, she says, it is important to look at the racial attitudes such as are measured by Gallup over time.
“This might be a watershed.”
Haves and Have-Nots
About one-fourth of those polled by Gallup said they were”have-nots,” which is twice the rate reported as living in poverty bythe federal government. More Blacks than Whites classify themselves ashave-nots (38 percent versus 22 percent), and 43 percent of Hispanicsclassify themselves as such.
But that disparity in self-assessment is clearest at the lowerincome ranges. When matched for income, Blacks and Latinos with incomesof under $50,000 are more likely than Whites to say they are have-nots.But Blacks, Hispanics, and Whites all had the same responses when theirincomes were above $50,000.
Ludwig says that people appear to be more likely to say they arehave-nots when they are surrounded by people they consider to be”haves.” However, poor people, if they are surrounded by other poorpeople, often do not characterize themselves as have-nots.
The poll asked those surveyed whether they had been deprived ofsomething in the previous year — such as clothing (18 percent saidyes); medical care (22 percent said yes) or food (11 percent said yes).
“Over the past decade, we in the United States have been benefitingfrom a booming economy, and still nothing in the way of deprivationlevels shows that,” says Ludwig. “Deprivation levels hang exactly wherethey were ten years ago.”
Despite that, 81 percent of those polled said there is “plenty of opportunity” in the United States.
“I was surprised at the strength of the capitalist social fabric,” Ludwig admits.
Dr. Sheila Kearney, who directs the social audit division ofGallup, which conducted the poll, says, “I would think that a lot morepeople would be alarmed by the disparities. The rich are getting aremore people richer and there without minimal satisfactions in life.”
The fact that so many people — Black and White — think that”education does give a positive advantage,” Kearney says, is something”we have been stressing throughout the civil rights movement. I findthat to be a very important factor and something I can focus on as acitizen.”
The full results of the Gallup poll can be found at the following Web address: <http://www.gallup.com/have_have_not/>.
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