Race Data: Perception v. Reality

In an interesting comment to my post below on Courting Public Opinion, Owen Courrèges provides a link to a fascinating 2001 poll done for the Washington Post, Harvard, and the Kaiser Family Foundation on racial attitudes.

This poll confirmed the existence of a dramatically powerful, across-the-board consensus among all ethnic groups regarding racial preferences. Predictably, however, this consensus is exactly the opposite of the one Nicholas Lemann claimed to see supporting the Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Grutter.

Here are the percentages of whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians who believed, in the words of the survey question, that “race or ethnicity should be a factor when deciding who is hired, promoted, or admitted to college….”

Whites 5%

Blacks 12%

Hispanics 7%

Asians 7%

Consensus anyone?

The poll reported another result that I find fascinating, but entirely predictable in a nation made up of people who watch TV newscasts now all but universally presented by a properly “diverse” cast of news readers.

When whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians were asked what percentage of the U.S. population those groups represented, here were the responses:


whites – 55.7

blacks – 29

Hispanics – 22.7

Asians – 15.4


whites – 59.7

blacks – 37.1

Hispanics – 28.4

Asians – 21


whites – 55.6

blacks – 32.5

Hispanics – 34.8

Asians – 21.8


whites – 54.1

blacks – 26.3

Hispanics – 24.8

Asians – 16.9


whites – 69

blacks – 12

Hispanics – 13

Asians – 4

In the hoist on their own petard department, these findings may suggest that one way of reducing racial preferences may be to accept the underlying principle of multiculturalism and insist on racial proportionality.

Say What? (7)

  1. G. Wallace July 11, 2003 at 7:09 pm | | Reply

    Interesting, but I am perplexed by some of the math: why is it that all of the survey responses provide breakdowns that add up to more than 100%? Did the poll ask for percentages one group at a time, or did it ask respondents to allocate the total population?

  2. John Rosenberg July 11, 2003 at 11:15 pm | | Reply

    Couldn’t tell from the article how the questions were asked. Apparently the respondents were not asked to make sure the percentages came to close to 100%.

  3. Brian July 13, 2003 at 2:18 pm | | Reply

    I’m a little concerned about the wording “hired, promoted, or admitted to college”. How does someone answer if they believe race should matter for college admissions but not job promotions?

  4. Owen Courrèges July 13, 2003 at 11:49 pm | | Reply


    The question doesn’t discriminate, but if it bothered a respondent, they could have always answered ‘not sure’ or ‘no opinion.’ Moreover, in a legal sense you must permit affirmative action in all of those cases or in none. Accordingly, I don’t think an injustice is done to the issue of affirmative action by lumping all of the relevant circumstances together.

  5. Gus M July 14, 2003 at 3:14 pm | | Reply

    How much of the question of what proportion each racial group has in the US has to do with people using there own life experiences? For example, I was raised in suburban DC in a county that is actually majority black. It was no surprise to me that my friends all thought blacks made up 25 to 40% of the population, because they did from where they grew up. If you asked people inArizona, which has, I believe, less than 5% black population, the answers would be different, wouldn’t it?

    I have friends here in AZ who were completely shocked when I showed them my High School yearbook, because the school I went to was half black. You just don’t see that in AZ.

    Conversely an Arizonan would probably say that Hispanics make up a much larger portion of the population because of the large Hispanic population in AZ.

  6. Joanne Jacobs July 15, 2003 at 7:24 pm | | Reply

    I remember when my father told me that Jews were a small minority of the population. I couldn’t believe it. Most of the kids I knew were Jewish. As I went through school and on to college and into journalism, I continued to meet lots of Jews. (The Elders of Zion’s conspiracy is doing well.) Intellectually, I know the right numbers. But I don’t believe them.

  7. Amritas July 16, 2003 at 6:15 am | | Reply

    It’s not just the TV newscasts that skew perception. Look at the racially diverse casts on TV shows in general. Theoretically, only one out of four characters should be non-white if TV casting were proportionate.

    Activists claim there aren’t enough of their group on TV, but they don’t seem to refer to proportionality. It might weaken their arguments.

    Geography can shape perception in unexpected ways. Hawai’i is white-minority and has very few blacks and Hispanics. Nevertheless, people here realize that Hawai’i isn’t like the rest of the US, so they may make guesses about national diversity based on TV.

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