See No Evil: Perception and Reality in Black and White

August 2, 2001

Just a few years ago, a public opinion poll indicated that only 6% of
whites in the U.S. believed racism was still a "very serious" problem
facing African Americans. While larger percentages believed racism to be
somewhat of a problem, only this anemic share of the white community saw
it as an issue of great importance.

When you consider that twice that number--or as many as 12%--have told
pollsters they believe Elvis Presley is still alive, it becomes apparent
that delusion has taken on a whole new meaning among the dominant racial
majority. Apparently, it is easier for whites to believe that a
pill-popping, washed-up lounge singer faked his own death and is playing
midnight gigs at some tropical resort, than to believe what black folks
say they experience every day.

So it was no surprise to read that once again a poll has been released,
indicating that whites by and large don't think racial discrimination
remains a big problem, and that whites and blacks continue to view
issues of racial equality far differently.

According to the recent Gallup Survey on "Black-White Relations," 7 out
of 10 whites believe that blacks are treated equally in their
communities: an optimism with which only 40% of blacks agree. Eight in
ten whites say blacks receive equal educational opportunities, and 83%
say blacks receive equal housing opportunities in their communities.
Only a third of whites believe blacks face racial bias from police in
their areas.

Despite the fact that half of all blacks say they have experienced
discrimination in the past thirty days, whites persist in believing that
we know their realities better than they do, and that black complaints
of racism are the rantings of oversensitive racial hypochondriacs.
Blacks, we seem to believe, make mountains out of molehills, for Lord
knows we would never make a molehill out of a mountain!

That white perceptions of the extent of racial bias are rooted in a
stupendous miasma of ignorance is made clear by a number of salient
facts. First, as will be shown below, there is the statistical evidence
indicating that equal opportunity is the stuff of fiction, not
documentary; and secondly, the simple truth that white perceptions of
racism's salience have always been splendidly naive. Indeed, as far back
as 1963, before there was a Civil Rights Act to outlaw even the most
blatant racial discrimination, 60% of whites said that blacks were
treated equally in their communities. In 1962, only 8 years after the
Brown decision outlawed segregation in the nation's schools (but well
before schools had actually moved to integrate their classrooms), a
stunning 84% of whites were convinced that blacks had equal educational
opportunity. In other words, white denial of the racism problem is
nothing new: it was firmly entrenched even when this nation operated
under a formal system of apartheid.

Of course, this ignorance of the lived realities of black people is no
surprise. Rather it is in large part the result of our isolation from
African Americans in daily life.

More than 80% of whites live in virtually all-white neighborhoods, and
nearly nine in ten white suburbanites live in communities with less than
1% black populations. What's more, only 12% of whites in law school
today--who by historical standards have had more opportunity to mix with
people of color than any generation before them--say they had
significant interaction with blacks while growing up.

One can only expect this degree of isolation to lead to a skewed
perception of what other people experience. After all, if one doesn't
know many blacks, or personally witness discrimination, it is all the
more likely that one will find the notion of widespread mistreatment
hard to digest. Especially when one has been socialized to give more
credence to what members of one's own group say, than what the racial
"other" tells us is true.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that every time a black person says they
have been discriminated against that they are, in fact, correct.
Individuals, after all, can misperceive certain situations. But the
reality of individual misperception should not lead to the widespread
white belief in mass black delusion, which is virtually the only way one
can read the Gallup figures.

For so many whites to believe that blacks have equal opportunity, is not
only to discount a few claims of discrimination that may be without
merit: rather, it is to reject the broad swath of claims that virtually
every African American can bring forth from their personal mental
rolodex. Fact is, if even one-tenth of the black claims of
discrimination were accurate, this would translate into well over 1.75
million instances of anti-black racial bias every single month, based on
survey data. Unfortunately, it is doubtful the numbers are this small.

Though the Gallup survey didn't address racial discrimination in the
labor market, there is little question that when whites say blacks are
treated equally, they are also assuming this to be true for the world of
work. But what is the reality? According to a recent study by the
Russell Sage Foundation, even though blacks search for work longer and
often more aggressively than whites, they are between 36-44% less likely
to be hired for jobs in mostly white suburbs, even when their experience
and qualifications are equal to their white counterparts. White males
with a high school diploma are just as likely to have a job, and tend to
earn just as much as black males with college degrees; and on average,
even when age, experience, education and other relevant factors are
considered, blacks are paid at least 10% less than similar whites.

As for education, the picture is much the same. Although formal
segregation is illegal, de facto segregation remains a reality thanks to
"ability tracking," which has less to do with actual ability, and more
to do with racial and class bias against children of color and those
from low-income families. Beginning as early as kindergarten, teachers
and counselors separate students based on so-called cognitive skill
levels, despite evidence that the tests used to determine these skill
levels are inaccurate predictors of ability and terribly biased against
students from non-dominant cultural backgrounds.

Even when black students show potential that is equal to or above that
of whites, they are 40% less likely to be placed in advanced or
accelerated classes, according to the head of the College Board. Despite
evidence of ability, blacks are 2.5 times more likely to be placed in
remedial or low-track classes, where they will typically be taught by
the least qualified teachers, be given less challenging material to
learn, and receive on average nearly 40 hours less actual instruction

So too is educational inequity fostered by unequal discipline, meted out
in a racially disparate manner. Even though black and white rates of
school rule infractions are roughly equal, black students are twice as
likely as whites to be suspended or expelled. Blacks are half of all
students suspended or expelled for weapons violations, even though
self-report surveys indicate whites are just as likely to bring weapons
to school, and white males are actually twice as likely as black males
to do so. Since blacks are more likely to be suspected--thanks to common
stereotypes about violence and delinquency--they are the ones who get
searched and caught, but this hardly means they break the rules more

According to studies by the Applied Research Center, the
disproportionate rate of black suspensions is the result of greater
punishment given for subjective infractions like "defying authority," or
"attitude problems," both of which are perceived as more threatening
when coming from black students than whites.

As for housing, white confidence in equal opportunity makes for nice
wishful thinking, but hardly comports with reality. Virtually every
study on housing bias in rental and mortgage markets for the past three
decades has found evidence of substantial ongoing discrimination.
According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, there may
be as many as 2 million instances of racial housing bias each year, and
as many as half of all blacks may face discrimination when trying to
rent an apartment or purchase a home.

According to the Boston Federal Reserve Bank, blacks are 56% more likely
than whites to be rejected for a mortgage loan, even after controlling
for 38 factors that could explain higher rejection rates for
blacks--including issues of credit history, collateral, and income.
Nationwide, mortgage loan rejection rates for the highest income group
of blacks is roughly the same as the rejection rates for the lowest
income whites.

Finally, white protestations that blacks receive equal treatment from
police in their communities, are nothing short of laughable. A look at
police prosecution of the war on drugs alone gives the lie to white
claims of equal law enforcement. Though blacks are only 14% of illegal
drug users, they are 35% of those arrested for possession. In many
communities, including some of the ones where whites claim there is no
bias in policing, blacks face arrest rates for drugs that are five, ten,
even twenty times higher than the rates for whites, despite roughly
equal rates of drug usage.

Though a slim majority of whites admit that racial profiling--one clear
example of unequal treatment--does happen, few believe it happens where
they live. Yet in state after state, studies have found a
disproportionate rate of highway and surface street stops of vehicles
driven by blacks, and searches of cars driven by blacks, above and
beyond the rates of black traffic infractions, which otherwise might
create reasonable cause.

In New York City, from 1997-1998, the NYPD's Street Crimes Unit stopped
and frisked 135,000 people: 85% of whom were people of color. Only 4500
persons were ultimately arrested and prosecuted, meaning that over 95%
of those harassed were innocent. Interestingly, whites who were stopped
were significantly more likely to be found with drugs or other
contraband, indicating that not only was this policy of racial stops and
searches a biased one, but it failed the test as valid crime control on
its own merits as well.

Of course, I hardly expect the facts to matter much, as an awful lot of
white folks seem impervious to them. When it comes to racial realities,
the levels of ignorance are so ingrained as to be almost laughable.
Perhaps that's why 12% of whites actually say blacks are a majority of
the nation's population, and why most whites believe blacks are a third
of the nation's population, instead of the thirteen percent they
actually represent. We seem to see black people everywhere, and
apparently we see them doing quite well.

We even see them as our buddies. 75% of whites in one recent poll
indicated that they had multiple close black friends. Sounds great,
until you realize that 75% of white Americans represents about 145
million people. 145 million who say they have multiple black friends,
despite the fact that there are only 35 million black people to go

Which means one of two things: either whites are clueless about black
people, friendships, or both; or black folks are mighty damned busy,
running from white house to white house to white house, being our
friends. In which case, we can put away all that nonsense about blacks
"taking our jobs." After all, how could blacks have time to work, what
with all the backyard barbecues they're attending at the houses of their
white pals? Hell, maybe Elvis will even invite them all to Graceland
when he makes his triumphant return to Memphis. Don't laugh: some people
will believe anything.

Tim Wise is a Nashville-based writer, lecturer and antiracism activist.
He can be reached at