Many Americans view Hurricane Katrina as one of the greatest U.S. tragedies. In addition to the human lives lost, the devastation and destruction of thousands of homes, and millions of dollars spent on reparations, perceptions of racial discrimination during the Gulf Coast rescue efforts were prevalent (e.g., Adams, O'Brien, & Nelson, 2006; Brown, Mistry, & Bigler, 2007; Henkel, Dovidio, & Gaertner, 2006; Marable, 2006; Voorhees, Vick, & Perkins, 2007; White, Philpot, Wylie, & McGowen, 2007). Initially, however, independent polls conducted shortly after the hurricane indicated that Black- and White-American respondents disagreed with regard to the well-documented slow government response times in providing support to shelters such as the New Orleans Convention Center and Superdome (e.g., Page & Puente, 2005; Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 2005). A frequently cited study entitled Huge Racial Divide Over Katrina and Its Consequences, conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press on September 6-7, 2005, revealed that 66% of Black-Americans, compared to 17% of White-Americans, believed the rescue efforts would have been faster had the predominant race of the victims been White as opposed to Black. In response to these findings, White et al. (2007) pointed "to the unwillingness of most White-Americans to see the racial implications of the event, illuminating the frequently distinct realities experienced by White- and Black-Americans" (p. 530).
In the current paper we present a racial-conciliatory perspective arguing that Black- and White-Americans are more similar than dissimilar in regard to perceptions of discrimination, particularly concerning Hurricane Katrina. While we do acknowledge that a difference in perceived discrimination between the two races exists and should be expected to some degree (Adams et al., 2006), we emphasize that collectively speaking, 1) the two races share more similar perceptions regarding discrimination than dissimilar, and 2) the perceived and reported distance between them may not be representative of the actual differences. These general predictions are based on two primary factors, statistical framing and questionnaire format, that may have contributed to the perception that Black- and White-Americans differ substantially with respect to perceptions of racial discrimination and injustice.
The first factor concerns the tendency for both the media and academic research to highlight differences between races as opposed to areas of agreement when presenting statistical findings. The media are driven by approval ratings whereas academic research is driven by statistically significant results. Although academicians cannot control how the media present information, research findings should be unbiased and presented objectively particularly with respect to racial issues. We contend that it is necessary to promote more representative perceptions of racial relations by presenting agreement when present with equal fervor within the context of the representative disagreement. Moreover, even if statistically significant differences do exist, the differences must not be presented in a manner that overstates the actual differences via framing. We argue that magnifying differences, especially in cases in which a larger degree of agreement exists, may influence an exaggerated perception of racial discord or at least one that is not entirely representative of opinion. The current paper introduces a descriptive statistical method that compares the margin of agreement with disagreement among respondents in order to more accurately display perception of discrimination among races with the hope of minimizing perceived intergroup polarization (Sherman, Hogg, & Maitner, 2009), regarding the notion that Black- and White-Americans view the world through extremely different lenses.
A second, less conspicuous factor under investigation in the current study is the nature of poll data such as the Pew data (2005) previously reported. Generally, such surveys use a discrete agree/disagree/uncertain format which limits answers to three options. Although these types of surveys are easy to administer and promote a fast response to the particular questions of interest, we contend that the responses may not be representative of actual opinion, particularly if individuals perceive other factors (e.g., socio-economic status, "SES") to be an influencing variable. Item questions that include several options to choose from, or that offer hypothetical situations, allow participants to think more thoroughly about a specific question and consider other factors such as SES when applicable. In general, individuals vary in the degree of control that they have over their thoughts. Higher mental processes are well documented and studies of automaticity reveal that much of cognition occurs unconsciously, automatically, and potentially in a biased manner (e.g., Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998). Yet, if individuals are asked to explain a socially significant phenomenon or asked to consider a situation from a more complex standpoint, they are more likely to engage in control processing. For example, the participants in the current study considered whether or not the government would have responded differently to four different groups of individuals of different races (Black versus White) and SES backgrounds (Rich versus Poor). We contend that considering rich Black or White individuals is more likely to elicit specific images of people with political power (e.g., Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, etc.) than just Black or White individuals, which is more abstract. Considering SES as a variable may increase the probability of admitting that race (although perhaps to a lesser degree) may have been involved as well. Using this type of questioning promotes a more careful consideration of what might have happened had individuals of different races/SES been present in the New Orleans shelters.
Both the question formatting and framing points raised are exemplified by the previously cited study titled: Huge Racial Divide Over Katrina and Its Consequences (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 2005). An examination of the findings in the Pew report illustrates the basis of our conciliatory perspective. With respect to magnifying differences, a careful investigation of the highlighted descriptive statistics does indicate that racial differences existed in perceptions following Katrina; however, in collective terms, the margin of agreement was greater than the margin of disagreement. For example, 55% percent of Whites reported experiencing depression following Katrina compared to 73% percent of Black Americans. Using margin of agreement/disagreement methods (as we term the descriptive statistic), the margin of agreement between the races was 82%, while the margin of disagreement was 18%. This calculation was computed by matching those that agree with each other as well as those that disagree. For example, the 55% of Whites who experienced depression could be matched up with 55% of Blacks that also experienced depression--these individuals we consider "in agreement." Since 73% of Blacks experienced depression, subtracting the 55% of Whites experiencing depression leaves 18% of Black respondents that cannot be matched up with White respondents. Additionally, the 27% of Blacks that did not experience depression can be matched up with 27% of the White participants that did not experience depression as well. Adding those that "match-up" between the races results in 82% (i.e., 55% that experienced depression plus 27% that didn't), while 18% of the respondents of each race are left in disagreement.
In addition to the margin of agreement with respect to depression reported by the Pew (2005) poll, African-Americans and Whites had more similar perceptions than dissimilar ones with questions concerning anger, the response efforts of the President, the U.S. government, as well as state and local governments. Furthermore, the two races had more similar perceptions regarding racial inequality as a current problem, in addition to other factors such as the refusal for many individuals to evacuate, the looting that occurred, and the many acts of violence. Of the ten Pew (2005) questions that were highlighted (pp. 2-5) concerning opinion, nine questions showed more similar perceptions between the races than dissimilar. As previously mentioned, 66% of African-Americans, compared to 17% of White-Americans, believed the rescue efforts would have been faster if the predominate race of the victims would have been White as opposed to Black. However, when considering our margin of agreement/disagreement methodology, the disparity in opinion is equal to the congruency. Seventy-seven percent of White participants reported that government response efforts would have been the same irrespective of race, whereas 27% of Blacks agreed. Additionally, 7% of Black respondents were uncertain compared to 6% of Whites. When the overlap in congruent perception (17% agreement, plus 27% disagreement, plus 6% uncertain) is added, the result is 50% in similar perception between the races versus 50% dissimilar. Therefore, with respect to government rescue efforts and race, the …