Thursday, July 17, 2008

They're Everywhere!

Matt Yglesias pulls out some interesting poll results: Both Black and White Americans significantly overestimate the number of Black people there are in America.

As Matt says, segregation can explain half of this phenomenon: Blacks who are disproportionately housed in segregated locales would understandably overstate the proportion of the Black population.

But what about Whites? Residential segregation would predict that they would understate the Black population. Yet they go over as well. What gives?

Unfortunately, my first thought by way of explanation is the "horde of brown people" hypothesis: Whites view Blacks as threatening, and build that threat into to something sufficiently large and scary to mobilize against. This is actually made easier by the fact of segregation: one can construct the image of a vast, teeming army of Black folks "over there", in "that part of town", which one never actually visits or hears about outside the crime section of the local paper.

Slightly more benignly, the psychological view that Blacks are everywhere makes it easier to dismiss claims that they're a vulnerable minority. In this view, the need to justify continued racial inequality is the tail wagging the dog: the more Blacks can be said to be mainstreamed, the less that needs to be done to account for their actual differential social standing.

Finally, because White people are the norm in American society, Blacks standout and are likely to be more memorable as a result; Whites misinterpret that to think that there are more Black people than there are, rather than correctly surmising that they're just less likely to notice all the White folks floating around their lives.


Jack said...

What I always find interesting in these sorts of polls isn't the majority that is the somewhat wrong but the small but statistically significant minority that is totally and embarrassingly confused. Five percent of Whites and four percent of Blacks think Blacks are the majority of the country?

Along these lines I have an alternate theory... when people don't know the answer to questions they tend to pick the choices that are midway between two extremes. (This actually tends to be a pretty successful strategy). That would explain the clustering around the middle two choices and how the extremes were the least popular. I bet I could shift the results if I gave respondents the option of guessing higher percentages. HECHT! I bet you could get a majority of respondents to say Blacks were in the majority if you only gave one option of saying below 50%!

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Random question--why do you capitalize the names of the skin-color-based races?

David Schraub said...

Because I think of race is a "strong" identity in terms of its personal and public meaning (akin to nationality or religion) as opposed to a "weak" or "incidental" one (eye or hair color, height).

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Not to be a pain, but how about gender? Are there Women and Men, or women and men?

PG said...

I don't follow David's capitalization because I prefer when possible to use actual ethnicity (e.g. African American) to skin color. Ditto saying "Latino" instead of the language-based "Hispanic." But saying the "women and men" terminology is a gender one raises an interesting point: if "woman" is a gender identity, then I think it is indeed a strong identity of personal and public meaning. However, if you think of "women and men" as merely biological descriptors, then one's particular formation of genitals is as weak and incidental as one's height.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, there is a conversation between the (Italian-American) protagonist and his (African-American) best friend in Don DeLilo's "Underwold," in which Brian, the black guy, explains his theory that the government is artificially deflating the number of black people in the United States - literally hiding some untold millions, since whites would be afraid of the actual number. This is dismissed by Nick, the main character, as paranoia - outside of his childhood fascination with numerology, Nick claims that the we don't need conspiracy theories or "dark arts" to make sense of the world.

And while we're all sharing our capitalization paradigms, I like to capitalize proper nouns. Religions and nations are proper nouns, so the adjective forms get capitalized. Colors are not, so they don't. I think this also makes a kind of logical sense - the invocation of Islamic or Croatian says many more and much more specific things about the described than just noting that someone is black or white or brown or mixed. Following Phoebe, I can't think of a plausible case why Women, Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, the Middle Class, the Homeless, People Who Make Under $10,000 a Year, People Who Make Over $150,000 a Year, Immigrants and Unionized Workers are not also possessed of strong social identities. I'd say that most/all of those designations affect one's social identity (as does skin color) much more than being Irish-American anywhere outside of Boston. So for once, I allow the jungle of social theory to be tamed by grammatical imperialism.

While we're on the subject, blogger asking me to "Choose an identity" before hit publish has raised the metaphysical stakes of this posting substantially. I will capitalize my name.

David Schraub said...

Well, as far as I can tell, it appears to be arbitrary when we capitalize and when we don't capitalize certain identity groups. So I'll shift my rationale to a pragmatic one: I capitalize Black and White to draw attention to my stance that these should be regarded as strong social identities, rather than incidental as is propounded by the dominant "color blind" ideology.

I actually wouldn't be opposed to capitalizing Women and Men in certain cases, but the view that those are strong social identities is more well-entrenched, so I don't need to use grammar as a prop.