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"Racial-Ethnic Destinies,"

by S.M. Miller May/June 2008 issue of Poverty & Race

Polls, such as this one on “Deep Divisions, Shared Destiny,” report the low (5%) margin of error of their study. Like many other polls, they neglect to point out that this error margin applies to the study as a whole. The margin of error for each of the three racial-ethnic groups, the sub-samples, may be larger than the overall error margin. Some lowering of confidence in the reports for each group is necessary.

A second concern is that polling is affected by contexts—political, economic, cultural—that occur around the time of the question-asking. Would the respondents have the same response in today’s reeling economy as they had in August-September, 2007 before the economy’s faltering became disturbingly evident? Better times breed optimism. As the report declares, the racial-ethnic landscape is in flux. The landscape will be made by events, circumstances, actions and responses by each group and by the broader society. In a few months and certainly years from now, new outlooks may appear.

Despite these and other doubts about the confidence we should place in polling reports, it is useful to examine convergence and differences among the three racial-ethnic groups. The great positive report is that people of color have positive attitudes about American society and each other. That provides the potential of their becoming a (somewhat) unified political force. Many pressures, particularly competition for jobs and political space, operate against that potential.

Unfortunately, America needs scape­goats, especially in difficult days. Over the years, Blacks, Irish, Jews, Italians, leftists, gays, etc. have been isolated, demeaned and discriminated against. One of the three racial-ethnic groups may be offered as economic villains or illegal workers (Hispanics) or as authors of their own economic difficulties (Blacks), undeserving of attention, because they are not motivated to produce the social capital that would provide them easy access to the higher reaches of the economic ladder. A common front against the scapegoating of any of the three groups may not emerge.

The immigration issue affects Black attitudes toward Hispanics who compete for jobs and are willing to work for low wages. Blacks are much more pessimistic about full inclusion in American society than the other two groups (two-thirds of Blacks do not believe that equal opportunity occurs) and may engage in actions that disturb the others. In some localities, Hispanics may be moved to issues and confrontations that bother the other two groups. Asians may decide that their economic and social integration in the USA is secure and avoid working with the other two groups. Both Hispanics and Asians fear crime by Blacks and may reject collaborating with them.

How to surmount these possible obstacles? One important approach has developed. Leaders of national organizations of the three groups are meeting. Perhaps over time some public remarks on political and other issues will emerge from the joint sessions as common purposes and actions occur. A national day calling attention to the difficulties and achievements of the three, and Native Americans, might be useful. The prospects of working together will be affected by the state of the economy (which group, Black or Hispanics, gains more political attention). A particular issue that needs a common position is immigration, which is of great importance for Hispanics. If a common position has emerged among the national leaders, it has not had wide publicity.

At least as important as national coordination is the coming together of the three groups at local levels. Local variations are not highlighted by national politics. As the report declares, “high levels of ethnic isolation exist among the groups which may underlie and reinforce racial tensions.” Discussions among local leaders and organizations could diminish antagonisms and differences among the groups. The goal would be to move toward joint action, although the early stage is likely to be mutual aid where the other two groups support the third group on its particular issue. Over time, this mutual aid might grow into an on-going coalition with a common agenda.

The common local program would emphasize one or another of such issues as unemployment, low wages, job up-grading, affirmative action, housing inadequacies, police and criminal justice treatment, access to health facilities, neighborhood amenities, educational issues. Focusing on a very limited set of issues—my mantra is that if you have more than three goals or issues at a time, you don’t have any goal—is important. Big goals and limited means lead to disillusioning failure (unless limited compromises are acceptable).

The report concludes optimistically that the three groups “will ultimately [my emphasis] work out ways to relate to each other for their mutual benefit over the long term” because they share important values. The assumption is that attitudes about values and conditions as depicted in a poll will have an enduring trajectory. Looking to a nearer-term future, consultation, collaboration, mutual aid, positive joint experiences and good economic and political times may reduce the time needed for ultimate change based on common core values. Today’s fields of action are important.

S.M. Miller is a PRRAC Board member and Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Boston University. He has worked with poverty and policy organizations in the U.S. and abroad. This article first appeared in Social Policy (Spring 1999).

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