It is widely agreed upon that racial discrimination in America today is less of a problem than it has been in the past (Carter and Murphy 2015, 269). However, the issue still remains controversial and widely debated today, despite decades of effort to solve this problem. Discrimination is defined by Black’s Law Dictionary as “a term used to deny someone the equal protection of the laws” (Discrimination 2018). This principle of equal protection is ingrained as a right for all American citizens in the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Though this guarantee exists in the Constitution, racism still exists; however, there is a large amount of debate regarding both the prevalence of this issue and the extent to which it persists today. This paper will use statistical analysis to explain the public’s attitude toward the seriousness of racial discrimination in the United States. This method explores why views on the seriousness of this topic seem to vary among Americans as we debate the need for anti-discrimination policies. Utilizing data collected from a CNN poll following the Charleston church shooting in 2015, a variety of characteristics will be analyzed to determine their impact on how people perceive the extent to which racism still persists today.
Literature Review and Theory
A significant amount of literature exists regarding the topic of perceptions of racism and discrimination among Americans. Recently, social psychologists have distinguished that there are two different types of racism: blatant and subtle (Carter and Murphy 2015, 270-271). These two different forms of discrimination are explored in Evelyn R. Carter and Mary C. Murphy’s article “Group-based Differences in Perceptions of Racism: What Counts, to Whom, and Why?” They describe blatant racism as, as the term suggests, far more obvious than subtle racism. Blatant racism includes more overtly discriminatory behavior that is characterized by a belief that certain races are inherently lesser than others, whereas subtle racism is much more ambiguous and less clear (Carter and Murphy 2015, 270). Subtle racism can even include explicitly-stated beliefs that are positive yet have a underlying negative feeling towards other races. Carter and Murphy’s article notes that in general, studies have shown that white people tend to have a more narrow definition of racism that is closer to the definition of blatant racism and thus view the problem of racism to be less prevalent than African-Americans do since their definition tends to be broader and encompasses both subtle and blatant racism (271-271).
Neither group denies that blatant racism is a problem; the disparity mainly comes from the debate surrounding subtle racism, which is harder to detect (Carter and Murphy 2015, 271). Since both groups agree that blatant racism has, for the most part, decreased in recent years, the existence of racial discrimination today consists more so of subtle racism. In fact, one survey reported that only 17% of white people believe that discrimination against minorities is a “critical issue in America today,” while 53% of black people agreed with the statement, which suggests that African-Americans are perhaps more able to detect subtle racism than Caucasians are (Carter and Murphy, 2015 269). In their article, Carter and Murphy utilize the results of a variety of studies and experiments about the way we perceive racism in order to find some potential reasons why this disparity exists between different racial groups’ viewpoints on the subject. These studies determined that factors such as being exposed to successful minority individuals (or “exemplars” as the study refers to them), focusing on future events rather than past history, and historical knowledge can all affect people’s perceptions of racism (Carter and Murphy 2015, 273). This literature is important because it reveals the complexity behind terms like racial discrimination since people define and interpret them in very different ways depending on the groups they belong to. A more blatant interpretation could result in a less serious perception of this variable.
Joseph L. Graves adds to the topic of racial discrimination in his article “Why the Nonexistence of Biological Races Does Not Mean the Nonexistence of Racism,” in which he discusses the idea of “color-blind racism” (1474). Graves defines this term as a case in which people of the “dominant socially defined race,” which are European Americans, argue that racism is not the main factor that determines life outcomes for non-European Americans, but instead a variety of non-racial components such as economic markets and cultural attitudes (1474). This may relate to why white Americans tend to believe that racial discrimination is less prevalent today than African-Americans do. By explaining the genetic aspects of race, Graves asserts that race is far more a social phenomenon than an actual biological one. This is interesting because despite this, a large amount of Americans still believe that racial differences are caused by biological differences. In fact, Graves reported that half of all European-Americans believe that genetics can explain, at least to some degree, the racial differences in drive for success, math skills, violent tendencies, and intelligence (1481). Carter and Murphy’s article suggested that white Americans tend to have less historical knowledge of racism than African-Americans do, and this misconception that many of them hold regarding race and biology is consistent with this (Carter and Murphy 2015, 274-275).
Ross L. Matsueda and Kevin Drakulich also contribute to the idea that racism is still very prevalent in America in their article “Perceptions of Criminal Injustice, Symbolic Racism, and Racial Politics.” They mention a series of events, such as the 1992 Los Angeles riots and the election of Barack Obama in 2008, that have shaped racial politics and the way that race is currently perceived among Americans (Matsueda and Drakulich 2009, 164). They hypothesized that the common belief that law enforcement is biased against African-Americans poses a threat to conventional institutions and thus results in a push to reform these discriminatory institutions by using policies like affirmative action that eventually have an impact on elections (Matsueda and Drakulich 2009, 165).
They expanded on this hypothesis by adding that they believe that African-Americans are more likely to feel that police have a bias against them and are thus also more likely to support policies like affirmative action, while white people tend to feel that police behave in a fair and just way and are more cynical of policies like affirmative action (Matsueda and Drakulich 2009, 165). Matsueda and Drakulich then tested their hypotheses by analyzing data from the American National Election Study, finding a number of interesting results. First, they reported that on average, African-Americans “believe that police treat 7 percent more black suspects unfairly than white suspects” (Matsueda and Drakulich 2009, 172). They also found that age, conservative ideology, and being married all have a negative correlation with believing that there exists injustice in the way police treat white people versus the way they treat black people, and there was a positive correlation between this belief and socioeconomic status (Matsueda and Drakulich 2009, 172). This study uses police racial injustice as an independent variable, which is a good indicator of beliefs on racial discrimination. It shows the relationship between this variable and other race-related topics, as well as a person’s beliefs and background.
In their article “Racially Biased Policing: Determinants of Citizen Perceptions,” Ronald Weitzer and Steven A. Tuch address race controversy in the United States with a focus on how it manifests in police bias. They utilized national survey data to assess Americans’ perception of and experience with a list of topics concerning race and law enforcement. Both Weitzer and Tuch’s study and the research in this paper focus on the determinants of the public’s perception of race issues. Weitzer and Tuch found that feelings toward the issues of race and law enforcement could be determined by a person’s personal experiences with police discrimination, their race, and their exposure to media on the topic (1014-1015). The variables in this study are more specific, but they are related to the data in our study in a general sense. This article also brings up useful terms for explaining why there are racial differences on these issues, such as the group-position thesis, which “focuses on intergroup competition over material rewards, status, and power” (Weitzer and Tuch 2005, 1010).
According to this theory, personal perceptions of race issues do not just come from personal feelings, but more from a sense of where their group ranks compared to other groups in society. This is consistent with the idea from Carter and Murphy’s article that white Americans may have higher thresholds for what they consider racism since they want to disprove the stereotype that they are racist, while African-Americans may have a lower threshold for this since they are more likely to be a target of racial discrimination (Carter and Murphy 2015, 270).
Nicholas Valentino and Ted Brader present another relevant analysis on this issue titled “The Sword’s Other Edge: Perceptions of Discrimination and Racial Policy Opinion After Obama.” This study aims to determine how a major event, like the election of the nation’s first black president, impacts the public’s perceptions of racial issues. They assessed changes in people’s attitudes both before and after President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, considering factors such as political ideology, political knowledge, preexisting negative opinions towards blacks, and feelings about other race policy issues (Valentino and Brader 2011, 217). What they found was that following the election, there was an overall decrease in the perceived level of discrimination. They reported that the largest declines coincided with greater negative feelings towards blacks, immigration, and affirmative action. According to their sources, in 2008 before the election, 63% of Americans “saw ‘discrimination against blacks’ as a very or somewhat serious problem.” After the election, this number decreased to 54% (Valentino and Brader 2011, 208). This indicates that major events can indeed have an impact on perceptions of social issues. This could be important later in our analysis of the Charleston church shooting, which could reasonably be expected to have impacted public opinion in the opposite direction that Obama’s election did.
Additionally, on the topic of the Charleston church shooting, the article “The Impact of Racial Slurs and Racism on the Perceptions and Punishment of Violent Crime,” written by Donald A. Saucier, Jericho M. Hockett, and Andrew S. Wallenberg, discusses in detail the definition of, perception of, and punishment for hate crimes. Hate crimes are characterized by perpetrators who choose victims based on their actual or even perceived membership to a certain social group (Saucier, Hockett, and Wallenberg 2010, 685). Such crimes are typically met with legislatively-mandated harsher punishments and sentences because they are viewed not only as an attack on the victim, but as an attack on the entire group that the perpetrator was targeting (Saucier, Hockett, and Wallenberg 2010, 686). Similar to the debate regarding whether or not racism is still prevalent today, the authors of this article note that there is also a large amount of debate regarding having more severe punishments for hate crimes. Proponents of the punishments believe they are just because the crimes have consequences that impact more people than just the direct victim of the crime, while opponents may believe they are no more severe than other similar kinds of crime (Saucier, Hockett, and Wallenberg 2010, 686). Saucier, Hockett, and Wallenberg also conducted a study regarding how individuals classify hate crimes based on factors such as severity of the crime, perpetrator and victim races, and the insult used by the perpetrator to offend the victim (689-690). This is useful in examining the Charleston church shooting as a hate crime based on the factors of classification that the study presents.
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