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New Scholarship in Race and Ethnicity - Social Context and Black Racial Attitudes

October 07, 2004 // 12:00am

African Americans are no longer the dominant racial minority group in the United States, and the urban centers in which they were once segregated have now become home to Latinos as well. This new integration poses several questions: How do African Americans perceive their racial group status as compared to Latinos? Will this perception lead to greater cooperation between the two dominant minority groups or to heightened tensions and competition for status and resources? How might the result shape the political and social landscape of the United States? In the Division of United States Studies' sixth program in its series on New Scholarship in Race and Ethnicity, Prof. Claudine Gay examined the way in which African-Americans' attitudes toward Hispanics are informed by their perception of place in U.S. society.

Gay's analysis of black racial attitudes in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Boston was based on the 1992-1994 Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality and the 1990 Census. It showed the fallacies in both the theory that holds racial predispositions to be a response only to perceived economic threat and the theory that the cause of negative racial attitudes is residential segregation and each group's resultant lack of familiarity with the other. In addition, it led Gay to hypothesize that traditional measures of economic well-being such as housing and educational level are not useful in assessing either the quality of life of many African Americans or their perceptions of their status, because many well-educated African Americans with relatively high income levels find it difficult to move into the better neighborhoods they can afford. She constructed a measure of neighborhood quality by utilizing data on housing, crime, police protection, schools, and shopping, but also surveyed African-Americans' perceptions of their group economic status relative to Latinos' status. This was done by quantifying their assessment of their own and other neighborhoods.

Gay found that many of the African Americans she studied in Los Angeles, which has the largest Latino population of the three cities, do perceive Latinos as a threat. They nonetheless have a more favorable view of Latinos than do African Americans in Boston and Atlanta. In all three cities, anti-Latino views were based primarily on the respondents' negative self-perception of their group's economic position, which suggests that economic conditions are a predominant factor in shaping black racial attitudes. The difference between Los Angeles and the other cities may be attributable to Los Angeles' long experience with diversity, which has resulted in the creation of civil society organizations in which members of different racial groups work together.

Prof. Michael Dawson commented that while existing scholarship on black racial attitudes treats such attitudes as an abstract concept or focuses on them only in the context of a black/white paradigm, Gay's path-breaking work places racial identity and attitudes in the context of a group's economic, social and political position in relation to other groups. He commented that the very concept of "black identity" is currently being contested, as immigrants from the Caribbean and from Africa make up an increasingly larger percentage of the American black population. In fact, as an audience member noted during the discussion period, Americans now live in an era of multiracial and multiethnic identities that call into question the validity of categories such as "black" and "Latino."

Prof. Lynn Sanders also lauded Prof. Gay for crossing scholarly paradigms by bringing together insights about racial identity from political science, psychology and economics. Gay's work will make it difficult, Sanders, said, for scholars to dismiss the struggles of the 1960s as no more than a fight for racial identity rather than as one for both identity and resources. Sanders' own work has shown that African-Americans' direct economic experiences were less important to their racial attitudes than was their view of the way society is constructed – that is, the way in which the society does or does not create equal opportunities for blacks and for whites. This raises the question of how experience is understood and interpreted, and how that interpretation affects racial attitudes. Sanders found Gay's paper to complement a similar study of white racial attitudes toward blacks, which concluded that whites who lose a job to an African American are most likely to hold anti-black views if they believe blacks as a group receive preferential treatment.

Policymakers who seek to minimize racial tensions must know the extent to which those tensions are economic or psychological as they seek to make decisions about the expenditure of limited resources. If, as Gay suggested, for example, black communities fear loss of access to magnet public schools as Latinos move in, then greater expenditures on education may be warranted. If multiracial civil society organizations foster mutual tolerance and understanding, perhaps it is those that should be subsidized. The public policy implications of the research, the panelists therefore agreed, are substantial.

Philippa Strum, Division of United States Studies 202-691-4129

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