Pew Report on Racial Views Deeply Flawed

On November 13, 2007, the Pew Research Center released a report on racial views of white and black Americans that captured much media attention and some response from bloggers. Much of the report’s analysis is odd, misguided, or weakly interpreted. The report, done in association with National Public Radio, is based on a telephone survey of more than 3,000 Americans, including an over-sample of 1007 African Americans, with only a 24 percent response rate.

The summary of the report on the Pew Research Center website is itself odd, misleading, and/or white-framed in much of it analysis of the state of racial matters in the United States. For example, the lead heading for this summary is in a large font size and virtually screams “Blacks See Growing Values Gap Between Poor and Middle Class.” The first pie chart is headed with “Are Blacks Still a Single Race?” And, the first paragraph of textual analysis reads:

“African Americans see a widening gulf between the values of middle class and poor blacks, and nearly four-in-ten say that because of the diversity within their community, blacks can no longer be thought of as a single race.”

In the first place, these are not the most significant findings in the survey from the point of view of a country with nearly four centuries of racial oppression as its foundation and continuing reality. The most important findings of the Pew survey are those that are not emphasized in the heading of the summary of the report on the website: that more than 80 percent of the African American respondents reported widespread racial discrimination in at least on major area of the society. Two thirds reported that African Americans always or often face discrimination in jobs or In seeking housing. Fifty percent said the same for shopping and restaurants. Also significant is that the survey found a majority of whites denying these realities reported by African Americans. (Is it odd to ask the discriminating group if they see the discrimination they or their peers do, and parallel that finding to what are called the “perceptions” of the targets of that discrimination?) The summary’s comments on these questions are well down in the report and only generally characterized.

The summary writers also report on a vague question about the state of black progress higher up in the second paragraph of the summary of the report, one that indicates that only a fifth of the respondents think things are better today for blacks than five years ago and that less than half (44 percent) think life will be better for blacks in the future. Then they report that whites (why, again?) are twice as likely to see black gains in recent years, and that a majority of whites think the future will be better for blacks.

The analysis is clearly framed from a white perspective, with no lead-in emphasis on the widespread racial discrimination cited by these African American respondents. Pleasing whites by not featuring the continuing racial discrimination seems to be the desire. Considering that whites created centuries of slavery and legal segregation, and ended all that less than four decades ago, this approach is suggestive of an establishment bias.

The opening story about a “divided race” is also problematic. The conclusions about a divided racial group mainly come from two questions in the survey, one asking “In the last ten years . . . have the values held by middle class black people and the values held by poor black people become more similar or more different” and another rather odd question asking, “Which of these statements comes closer to your view, even if it is not exactly right: Blacks today can no longer be thought of as a single race because the black community is so diverse; OR Blacks can still be thought of as a single race because they have so much in common.” On the first question 61 percent of the black respondents replied “more different,” while on the second question 53 percent said “single race” (37 percent chose “no longer . single race . so diverse”).

These questions are themselves so superficial as to be hard to interpret if not useless. The first question actually leaves out half of Black America, the working class half that is neither “poor” nor “middle class.” One cannot draw strong conclusions about the supposedly divided state of Black America and leave out half the population. In addition, the largely white-controlled (and often conservative) mass media hammer so hard on the “pathologies” of poor black Americans that it is not surprising that some black as well as many white respondents have stereotyped notions about the supposed (negative?) “values” of these poor Americans, most of whom in fact have many of the same positive values as the rest of the U.S. population with regard to issues of family, education, and the American dream. Significant here too is that the word “values” is left vague and undefined. What did the question (white) writers have in mind?

The question about “single race” is also so vague and ill-defined that its results are hard to interpret. First, a majority of these black respondents do not see a divided race, a finding that is not emphasized in the Pew report. Secondly, the word “diverse” in the question can mean several things, since it is not specified for the respondents. What kind of diversity do the respondents have in mind who chose the first presented option? The resulting data indicate more about poor question-writing by the survey researchers than a finding one can feel confident about interpreting. One also has to wonder again about the role of the mostly white-controlled mass media in generating inaccurate notions of a splintered African Americans group even in some African American minds.

Several conservative talk show hosts and mainstream media commentators, including Juan Williams for NPR, picked up on another vaguely worded, and loaded, question asked in the survey: “Which of these statements comes closer to your views: Racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead OR Blacks who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition.” Fifty-three percent chose the latter option, with 30 percent choosing the discrimination option. Again, this is written from a white racial frame, as it poses a false dichotomy. One can easily choose both options of individual responsibility and racial discrimination in assessing the problems for “many black people.”

Racial discrimination and oppression, as other questions in the survey mentioned above indicate, are well recognized by a majority of these African American respondents as creating very serious limitations on black lives–a view that is unsurprising given that this country has only had freedom from slavery and legal segregation now for about 38 of its 400 years (less than 10 percent of its history!). Given the intense accent on individualism, it is not surprising that African Americans, like other Americans, typically accent individual responsibility for what goes on in individual lives. That does not lessen the reality of racial oppression, nor their knowledge of that oppression from everyday experience.


  1. Shari

    “Blacks see a growing values gap between the poor and middle class”

    If this class divisive question is relevant to Blacks, why is it not also relevant to Whites? The case of the invisible White people again. The survey does not inquire of Whites whether or not they see a growing values gap between the poor and middle class. The odds are that the numbers on White perceptions of class differences would be similar to Black perceptions. Would that then mean that Whites are a divided race? If race is race and class is class the way the White Frame leads us to believe, then how can a race become “not a single race” based on class distinctions. If that can be done, then the White race achieved that status centuries ago in America.

  2. Leslie

    Seemingly credible reports such as these help to cement our society’s hierarchial perceptions of race. Such reports become fuel for continued dialogue, which rarely critically analyze things such as response rate, leading questions, survey methods. These reports are dangerous because 1) they are put out by big think tanks that carry status and clout in our society, and 2) because they feed into the white racial frame….they tell the public what it expects to (wants to?) hear.

  3. Joe Author

    Both Shari and Leslie make very good points.

    Shari’s point is penetrating. It is striking that they do not ask whites about class divisions and values, therein, esp. since the largest group of the poor are white in the US.

    Leslie is right too, that these reports have a certain deflection result and function. To take the heat off of white discriminators. Notice how seldom any analyst makes white discriminators the subject of sentences about “race” and racism in the US.

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