Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

A Study of the Contemporary Racial Attitudes of Whites and African Americans

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

A Study of the Contemporary Racial Attitudes of Whites and African Americans

Article excerpt


Opinions, assumptions, myths and ideologically constructed perspectives on the nature of contemporary American race relations seldom rest upon and are seldom tested against empirical facts. As a partial corrective, this study explored the racial attitudes and patterns of interracial interaction of a representative sample of adult white and African American residents of a large, border-state metropolitan area between 1993 and 1996. Statistical analysis of survey data revealed that the values and behavior of both whites and African Americans in the sample were influenced powerfully by attitudes grounded in centuries old racial stereotypes. Formal knowledge of the culture and history of African Americans, and interaction across racial lines diminished stereotypical attitudes for both racially defined groups. However, in an increasingly resegregated region, opportunities for intercultural knowledge acquisition and constructive interaction across racial boundaries have become increasingly infrequent.

Despite the wishful thinking and obfuscations of modern racial conservatives (D'Souza, 1995; Hermstein, & Murray, 1994), there is compelling evidence that racism is not an artifact of the American past, but persists as a contemporary social and cultural norm (Bell, 1992; Franklin, 1991; Jordan, 1968). The neoracism of the neo-conservative movement, "angry white males", the current anti-affirmative action fervor and how deep-seated racist attitudes "bubbled to the surface" in the aftermath of the O. J. Simpson trial are only a few examples. This evidence is complemented by the existence of massive and measurable objective inequalities between persons of color and white Americans (Banner and Haley, 1994; Farley, 1984; Farley, & Allen, 1987; Hacker, 1992; Jaynes, & Williams, 1989; Sigelman, & Welch, 1991).

This relationship between white racism and the subordination and exploitation of persons of color has a long history--spanning the dispossession of Native Americans, the enslavement and segregation of African Americans, the marginalization of Latinos and the long exclusion of Asians. However, while historic and contemporary inequalities are facts, these facts are effects for which two fundamentally different possible causes are typically advanced: either persons of color are unequal because they are "inferior" by nature, i.e., genetically; or their inequality reflects the multiple outcomes of their treatment by white Americans. In other words, racial inequality is either natural and normal, and no one is responsible--or racial inequality is a social evil caused and perpetuated by its identifiable beneficiaries. Although the genetic inferiority argument has been refuted on countless occasions (Hudson, 1995), acceptance of this myth remains widespread. Unfortunately, where racism is concerned, the facts of history and science are far less important than what people believe and how their racial beliefs inform and govern their perceptions and behavior.

Still, if one rejects the myth of genetically based racial inferiority, the reality of the present embodies a simple, but profound paradox: after the apparent repudiation of racism and legal segregation a generation ago, racism and racial inequality should no longer exist--yet they do. How and why is this so? What is there about racism that renders it so resilient, so difficult to dislodge from the collective psyche of Americans and the structure of American culture and institutions? Furthermore, if, as Richard Wright (1957) warned years ago, "Oppression oppresses and can become a tradition, in fact, a kind of culture", how do the combined effects of American racial mythology and objective social conditions that seem to validate this mythology shape the attitudes, values and beliefs of persons of color?

The purpose of this study is to pose and contribute to the exploration of such questions in the context of late twentieth century America. …

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