Mutual cluelessness A mixture of wishfulness and delusion

Posted: September 09, 2001

As reported this summer, a Kaiser/Harvard/Washington Post survey of 1,709 randomly selected adults revealed a startling level of ignorance among whites.

Belief: Depending on the exact question, between 42 and 50 percent of the white population say that blacks have reached economic parity.

Facts: One-third of all whites hold professional or managerial jobs compared with a bit more than one-fifth of blacks. Blacks are twice as likely as whites to be unemployed or poor. The disparity between the respective net worths is far greater: Blacks are far more likely to have zero or negative net worth.

Belief: Sixty-one percent of whites say that blacks have at least as much access to health care as whites.

Fact: Blacks are almost twice as likely as whites to lack health insurance.

Belief: Almost half of whites think black-white educational levels are equal.

Fact: Only 17 percent of blacks have completed college, as compared with 28 percent of whites.

How to account for these errors - errors that are shocking but perhaps not surprising? The findings are clear enough to give us grounds for good guesses. We are seeing a mixture of wishfulness and resentment. Wishfulness pretends the playing field is level; resentment finds fault with anyone who has the temerity to declare that it is not so.

In part, we have a case of delusions spawned by progress. The upward mobility of African Americans in the generations since the civil-rights movement of the 1960s perversely conveys the impression that race has disappeared as a contributing factor toward individual opportunity.

Many whites do not see, or do not wish to see, that the African American population is severely bifurcated between have-nots and have-somes. The middle-class have-somes are both well represented throughout business and the professions and exceedingly visible in the media. Already disposed to doubt that a long, deep history of racism might account for any present-day racial disparities or resentments, many whites seize on some blacks' super-success as anecdotal proof that "the problem is solved." They do not wish to acknowledge that many successful blacks have benefited from affirmative action programs. (Two cases in point: Secretary of State Colin Powell and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who availed themselves of affirmative action programs in the Army and at Yale University, respectively.)

Moreover, the media's well-meaning efforts at color blindness perversely suggest that a cross-racial utopia has arrived. Buddy movies and award ceremonies pair black and white stars in casual racelessness and depict wholly integrated milieux where race barely occasions a comment. Thus some spectators (again, wishfully) draw their impression that "we've left racism behind."

Competitiveness is almost certainly at work, too - and the need to explain less-than-favorable life circumstances. In a fiercely competitive society, people who fail in their pursuits - a job, a promotion, a college admission - want explanations. When the world looks unfair, racial categories come readily to mind. They have an ample history. They take you off the hook. Competition from blacks is a ready explanation for whites (and others) who think they should be doing better than, in fact, they are.

Not surprisingly, poorer and less-educated whites are much more likely to hold false views of black conditions. Not only are they less exposed to the truth of race relations, but also they have the most intense practical reasons to get the story wrong. In other words, many whites, having already decided they oppose affirmative action, reduce cognitive dissonance by deciding that blacks and other minorities don't need it.

The most benign explanation for some of the white ignorance this survey discloses is wishfulness. Many whites wish to believe the grim story of racial oppression is over, finished, done with. It is an embarrassment. Americans - like citizens of other countries - would rather believe their nations are benign.

Wishfulness, delusion, plain ignorance - all these are impediments to facing the world squarely and making it better.

Todd Gitlin is professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York University and the author of "The Sixties," "The Twilight of Common Dreams," and most recently the novel "Sacrifice."

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