Race Relations in America despite Some Well-Publicized Hate Crimes and Episodes of Tension, Racial Harmony Is Growing

By Burns W. Roper. Burns W. Roper is chairman of the Roper Organization Inc., a. public opinion research firm based York. This column is reprinted with permission from the July/August edition of "The Public Perspective. ". | The Christian Science Monitor, July 13, 1990 | Go to article overview

Race Relations in America despite Some Well-Publicized Hate Crimes and Episodes of Tension, Racial Harmony Is Growing


Burns W. Roper. Burns W. Roper is chairman of the Roper Organization Inc., a. public opinion research firm based York. This column is reprinted with permission from the July/August edition of "The Public Perspective. "., The Christian Science Monitor


I HAVE always believed that public opinion polls make one of their greatest contributions when used to assess the validity of "common knowledge." With respect to race relations in America, the polls reveal how wrong "common knowledge" is. From what is said in much of the news media today, we would think the state of race relations in America had deteriorated to a post-war low. But this is far from the truth.

There's no question that the racial climate in New York City is tense right now. Howard Beach, Bensonhurst, the Central Park jogger, Tawana Brawley: These bring to mind serious examples of racial animus, deserving of wide attention and condemnation. And New York City holds no monopoly on racial enmity. Black students battled white police officers last year in Virginia Beach, Va. And a former Ku Klux Klansman is making a credible run for the US Senate in Louisiana.

Although there may be reason to fear a rise in racial violence in cities and on campuses across the country, these remain isolated events that do not reflect the views or experiences of the vast majority of Americans - black or white. Blacks are far more satisfied with the quality of their lives than they were a decade ago, and whites have grown far more tolerant.

A Roper poll in 1978 sought to measure the conditions of the races, unaffected by any mention of race. To accomplish this, we asked people about conditions "here in this neighborhood."

Compared to whites, blacks that year reported far higher rates of unemployment, crime, drug abuse, and violence. In some cases, blacks were two, three, even four times as likely as whites to criticize the living conditions in their respective neighborhoods. This year we again asked the same series of questions and found major improvements. Although the experiences of blacks are still worse than those of whites, the differences have narrowed remarkably.

Fewer than a third of blacks complain, for example, about juvenile delinquency in their neighborhoods, down from half in 1978. At the same time, juvenile delinquency was mentioned as a problem by a fifth of whites, down from a quarter. Housing conditions also appear to have improved for blacks. Only 28 percent now cite a lack of good local housing, down 11 percentage points over the past dozen years. And fewer than a fifth criticize treatment by police, down 10 points. Other problems are mentioned much less frequently by blacks this year than in 1978: auto thefts (down 18 points), drug dealing (down 22 points), attacks on older people (down 23), break-ins (down 25), and unemployment (down 28). …

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