The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research released a report late last month examining public attitudes about standards of living and the future. According to the report, minority optimism and White pessimism have both been trending up over recent years, and the difference between minorities and Whites on how optimistic they are regarding their future has never been as large as it is today.

Key Findings

Associated Press public poll data were used along with data from the General Social Survey (GSS), an ongoing survey administered by The National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago. The current report on public mood focused on racial differences in optimism. Key questions and responses include:

  • “The way things are in America, people like me and my family have a good chance of improving our standard of living.” About seven in ten Latinos (73%) and Blacks (71%) agreed with this statement. Agreement to this statement among Whites declined by 21% since 2006: only 46% of Whites agreed in the current reporting period—marking the lowest level of White agreement to this statement in the history of tracking this item.

  • “Generally speaking, would you say things in this country are heading in the right direction or the wrong direction?” Average percent agreement was 48% for Latinos and 69% for Blacks.  Agreement among Whites was 30%.

  • “So far as you and your family are concerned, would you say that you are pretty well satisfied with your present financial situation, more or less satisfied, or not satisfied at all?” Here, 31% of Whites were satisfied with their personal financial situation compared to only 20% of Blacks. Data for Latinos were not shown.

  • “During the last few years, has your financial situation been getting better, worse, or has it stayed the same?” Whites indicated their situation improved somewhat over the past few years (28% current compared to 24% in 2010). Blacks’ assessments of their personal situation remained essentially unchanged during the same period (29% current compared to 30% in 2010). Data for Latinos were not shown.

Interpreting the Data

Presumably, the survey researchers did not interview the many Blacks and Latinos that are incarcerated, working multiple low wage jobs, or otherwise unable to afford or maintain telephone service or permanent residencies. Had researchers surveyed those individuals, the results of this report may have been completely different. Even ignoring the methodological concerns involved in not surveying those marginalized segments of the general population, the majority of Blacks and Latinos have still fared worse than Whites under the current economic and political climate. As noted in the AP-NORC report, Blacks have lost 43% of their net worth since 2005 while Whites have only lost 15% in the same period. In a different survey, Latinos lost 66% of their median wealth from 2005 to 2009 (compared to 53% among Blacks and 16% among Whites). More recent Census data tells a similar story of race-based wealth disparity: on average, Whites have 22 times the wealth of Blacks and 15 times the wealth of Latinos. It appears that Black and Latino levels of optimism are not aligned with any actual economic or social improvements. So what might account for today’s increased feelings of pessimism among Whites and increased minority optimism?

The authors of the AP-NORC report suggest 2008 was a turning point in collective optimism and pessimism.  They contend the election of Obama had a strong effect on public attitudes about the direction of this country—and those attitudes are largely predicted by race; minorities viewing the election more favorably than Whites. Again, this effect seems to be more symbolic than anything driven by actual policy or economic improvements that benefit minorities. To be clear, standards of living among most Americans have been eroding under the present economic downturn. But, increasingly, Whites see the small gains of others (e.g., election of a Black president) as their huge losses (e.g.,”the future of my family is in jeopardy”). As the AP-NORC report shows, while they continually see themselves gaining as individuals, they perceive themselves as losing as a group. And, perception is everything.

The Power Optimism

Many psychological researchers have made the case that optimism is adaptive. At the core, optimism is a belief in the expectation of positive future outcomes. Belief in a better tomorrow can help people cope and adjust to difficult circumstances in their lives.

For ethnic minorities, optimism about our future may serve a similar psychologically protective purpose. The minority who thinks he can overcome often insurmountable obstacles perfected through centuries of institutionalized oppression is exhibiting a certain type of spiritual preparedness. Regardless of whether he is doing this consciously or unconsciously, he is giving himself a mental advantage to better navigate a world that creates, sustains and depends on his vulnerability.

For generations, people of color in this country have learned to oppose fear and hate with the few tools we have at our disposal. Our rising levels of optimism compared to Whites demonstrate our  increasing resourcefulness at this task. This proficiency has come to us after centuries of practice.

A Browner Tomorrow

By 2050, it is projected that 54% of the US population will be minorities. The upcoming demographic shifts have been portrayed differently in different outlets. For some, we are approaching a golden brown future where tomorrow’s diversity will lead us to claim our rightful position as the strongest democracy on the face of this earth, the likes of which have never been seen in history. For others, America as we know it will cease to exist.  Marauding hordes will rip the U.S. Constitution to pieces, mixing it with corn and pork to feed to their litters of screaming babies.

What race relations will look like in the future is unknown. But if current research on race relations and related attitudes are any indication of what will pan out, those demographic shifts will be accompanied by plenty of fear and anxiety.  A wealth of research indicates that people tend to equate increases in numbers with increases in power. The more there are of a particular group, the more perceived relative power that group has. The fact that there will be more brown people in the coming decades means some White people will think that they are losing power to minorities.

Some researchers have already demonstrated this belief in action. Work by Canadian and American researchers showed that when Whites thought about dwindling numbers of their group relative to the general population, they reported greater anger and fear toward minorities and felt more sympathy towards White people in comparison to other Whites not instructed to think about upcoming demographic shifts. In other work done by American researchers, increasing numbers of Whites believe anti-White bias is growing. They think they are more discriminated against than other races.  Whether this is true or not, this is what they perceive to be true. As such, these beliefs have meaningful implications for current and future race relations.

Common Threats

The rise of the minority population in the US does not mean minorities will soon hold more power in this country—it may just mean more people will be disadvantaged than ever before. The media is quick to draw our attention to race relations in sensational and unproductive ways, which helps to perpetuate race-based fear and anxiety. We are concerned with the wrong types of numbers in this country. While many will be threatened by growing numbers of minorities, the true threats most Americans face are rising poverty, mass incarceration, and negative health and education outcomes. More Americans are struggling with poverty than ever before. Income inequality is at an all-time high. We incarcerate more people than any other nation in the world. Disparities  in access to quality healthcare and education remain persistent.

Until all Americans can recognize who is actually taking our power, we will continue to blame and fear the wrong groups of people. However, a collective call to action is something I am increasingly optimistic about.

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