“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”  Mark Twain

Suppose a factory with a hundred employees – fifty men and fifty women – was dealing with accusations of a sexually hostile workplace. Suppose that in response, the factory manager took an anonymous survey of the employees on their opinions about sexual harassment and announced that “Most Employees” reported they did not find the workplace to be sexually hostile. Should the factory manager and his survey be trusted?

That would depend. If 95% of the employees – men and women – did not report a sexually hostile environment, that would be good news. Unfortunately, if all 50 male employees reported the factory was not a sexually hostile environment and 49 of the 50 women reported the factory WAS a sexually hostile environment, the factory manager could legitimately report that “Most Employees” (51%) found the factory safe and welcoming. However, we can all agree that if 49 of 50 women at a factory reported it as a sexually hostile environment, that factory is a very ugly place to work.

This is the problem with statistics. As Mark Twain suggested, they often obscure deeper truths and sustain lies. They can be manipulated to state or imply things that are not accurate. This happens often when our nation tries to understand the state of racial relations in America.

This past June, the Gallup Poll took its annual pulse of racial relations in the United States, using a set of questions they’ve been using for almost 20 years. Based on this polling, the state of racial relations in the United States looks pretty good. Most Americans believe the following…

  • Blacks have as good a chance of getting a good job as whites. (55%)
  • Blacks have as good a chance of finding good housing at whites. (60%)
  • Blacks are not discriminated against in the workplace. (65%)
  • Blacks are not discriminated against while shopping. (66%)
  • Black children are as likely to get a good education as white children. (64%)
  • Blacks are not discriminated against while receiving healthcare. (66%)
  • Racial relations in the United States have improved. (69%)
  • Reparations to black people are not needed. (67%)

Of course, none of these statistics take into account our national demographics where 62% of the population identifies as White and only 13% identify as Black.  Think about our imaginary factory. If 80 of the 100 employees had been men and all of them reported the factory was safe and welcoming, the factory manager could have bragged that 80% of his employees found the factory a safe environment. However, if all twenty female employees reported a hostile environment, this is far more important than what “most employees” say or think.

When trying to understand the state of racial relations and discrimination in the United States, the opinions of those most impacted by the alleged societal injustices are far more important than the opinions of those who are not targets for this discrimination and may even be its beneficiaries. Let’s look at the opinion of black people to the same set of questions…

  • Blacks have as good a chance of getting a good job as whites. (31%)
  • Blacks have as good a chance of finding good housing at whites. (36%)
  • Blacks are not discriminated against in the workplace. (37%)
  • Blacks are not discriminated against while shopping. (39%)
  • Black children are as likely to get a good education as white children. (38%)
  • Blacks are not discriminated against while receiving healthcare. (36%)
  • Racial relations in the United States have improved. (57%)
  • Reparations to black people are not needed. (25%)

As you can clearly see, regardless of what most Americans think about racial relations, the opinions of those most impacted by racism – Blacks – are vastly different. Too often, when we read “Most Americans” in an article, it is actually reporting the opinions of “Most White Americans” and implying those are the only opinions that really matter. Sadly, this statistical device sustains racism in our society, allowing the opinions of those who benefit from racism to control the dialogue.

Statistics can deceive.

For example, you may have noticed that most Blacks (57%) reported that racial relations are improving in the United States. That seems encouraging. A newspaper could even write that “Most Black Americans Think Nation Improving.”  While statistically true, this would be deceptive. It implies Black people are feeling better about racial relations in the United States.

This is not the case. The Gallup Poll allows us to track opinions over time.  In 2013, 81% of all Black respondents thought the state of racial relations in the United States was improving. This June, only 57% thought so. In 2008, 72% of all Black respondents thought racism was widespread in the United States. This June, 84% thought so.

Here is an irony. While most white Americans consistently suggest Black people are not facing serious discrimination, one of the chief areas of agreement in the polling is on the very first question – Would you say relations between — White and Black people — are very good, somewhat good, somewhat bad or very bad?  Most Americans (57%) think they are somewhat or very bad. Most White American (56%) think this. Most Black Americans (66%) agree. Even most Hispanic Americans (56%)  – the only group excluded from this question – say relations aren’t good.

We continue to live in a nation where a strong majority of Black people find our society a hostile environment. That white people can’t see this is no more relevant than the men in my imaginary factory who couldn’t see the sexual harassment. Giving white opinions about racism extra weight suggests we’re defending the status quo rather than seeking positive change.

The statistics suggest that more and more Black people are experiencing our nation as racially hostile. We are moving in the wrong direction.

When it comes to racism, the opinion of “Most Americans” is usually wrong.

3 thoughts on “What “Most Americans” Think About Racism Is Usually Wrong

  1. Another interesting “statistic” is that 20% seems to be the tipping point for when men say that the room is 50/50 men/women when it’s actually 20% women. The same for white/black ratios. What does that say about the dominant party’s perceptions?

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    1. The “room(s)” where power is concentrated: Scotus; Congress; Corporate boards; healthcare organizations; Legislatures and Governorships, to name a few. It’s not just the power vested in decision plurality; it’s what issues and perspectives are broached.

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