In the Eye of the Beholder

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Amid the current flood of prosperity, social problems in the United States seem to have been submerged by "a rising tide that lifts all boats," as politicians are fond of quoting John F. Kennedy. But the problems are still there, ready to re-emerge when there are no more hot Internet stocks to hold the nation's attention. America's racial problems are high on that list.

Prosperity has, indeed, benefited most Americans, including African Americans and other minorities who have suffered from historically high unemployment rates and low incomes. Asked if their situation is better now than five years ago, whites and African Americans agree equally (about 48 percent) that their situations have improved, according to a recent Newsweek poll.# And the picture is even better if the focus is specifically on family income.

But ask if the situation of black people in this country is better today than it was five years ago, and a different picture emerges. About half of all white Americans say blacks are better off and 38 percent say things are about the same. African Americans, however, flip those numbers around: Only 32 percent say it is better today and 52 percent say it is the same.

Looking to the future, there is optimism in the air, if one considers only the overall numbers: 60 percent of Americans say they expect race relations to get better in the next five years and only 6 percent say they expect them to worsen. Twenty-eight percent say that things will stay about the same.

But drawing strong conclusions from those numbers could be quite misleading, because there are substantial differences between the attitudes of white Americans and African Americans. Not only do the two groups differ on the progress that has been made, they differ dramatically about the future course of race relations. Sixty-two percent of whites say the situation for black people will be better in five years. Only 44 percent of African Americans agree that the outlook is that rosy.

This finding highlights one trend in research on public opinion concerning race: the increasingly common practice of gathering enough data on the opinions of the minority groups to analyze them separately from the opinions of white Americans. While this might seem to be an obvious strategy, it is nonetheless an expensive one that has often not been used. Even in the academic world, the focus on data from minority groups is "an important and overdue thrust of recent scholarship," as one journal noted.

Of course, race in America is not now (if it ever was) solely a black-white issue. The growing size and importance of the Hispanic population is well documented, while other groups, such as Asian Americans, are growing more significant in some areas. But because of the central role relations between black and white Americans has played throughout much of the nation's history, there is a rich, deep, and growing body of survey research focused on racial matters.

One cause for optimism has been the theory that racial tensions in America will decline and discrimination will diminish as younger people grow into adulthood, having matured in a different, less discriminatory, and more tolerant atmosphere. And that may indeed be the case. But one should not blithely rely on age cohort replacing age cohort to ease the nation's racial problems.

Studies of the racial attitudes of young people raise some major warning flags. A recent analysis ofa long series of surveys of high school students #suggests that young people are quite clear about the issue of race, and they are less than sanguine about what the future holds.

The data come from the "Monitoring the Future" surveys conducted by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research from 1976 through 1995. Interviews with high school seniors each of those years shows an increasing level of concern about the future of race relations. Among white teenagers, the percentage of those who say relations between whites and blacks have been getting better has declined from 68 percent in 1976 to just 50 percent in 1995. The percentage of black teenagers taking the same optimistic view has declined from 75 percent in 1976 to 51 percent in 1995. On the other side, the percentage of white high school seniors who say race relations are getting worse has increased from 10 percent to 24 percent over that time period. For African American seniors, it has increased from 6 percent to 22 percent.

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