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"'Minority' is a Problem Concept,"

by john a. powell May/June 2008 issue of Poverty & Race

The New America Media poll on racial and ethnic attitudes between Blacks, Hispanics and Asian Americans is both very important and subject to many of the limitations that we have experienced in the past when striving to talk openly about the attitudes and positions of different racial and ethnic groups in the United States. There are problems with the poll. The poll continues the troubling practice of leaving out Native Americans; there may be a good reason for this, but it is not offered. Polls tend to only capture what a respondent is consciously thinking at the time. They are generally not sensitive to implicit attitudes, nor do they capture how attitudes are impacted and shift by structural arrangement. But this poll, though important, suffers from additional problems (discussed below) which are more closely related to the subject matter of race. This poll is important because there has been far too little attention paid to salient differences in attitudes and perceptions between racial and ethnic populations in this country. Typically, the focus is on European Americans in relationship to other groups, particularly African Americans. Consequently, there is a need to better understand the dynamic interactions between African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans.

For some time, there has been a call for a more inclusive and nuanced approach to looking at racial and ethnic issues in the United States. And while this is somewhat easier said than done, this poll begins to move us in the right direction even as it exposes some of the difficulties. In looking at the issue of race in America, it is easy to over-focus or under-focus on European Americans when thinking about race. This poll suffers from the latter. We have to recognize the dominant role European Americans have played and continue to play in many ways, but we must also broaden our gaze, to work for a more textured, multi-relational perspective. Indeed, we should be interested not only in perspective, but also in conditions and situatedness. Again, not an easy task.

This poll includes Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians as the three largest ethnic and racial minority groups in the U.S. There are a number of problems even at this level. “Minority” is a problem concept. Do they mean a numeric minority? If so, then what does majority-minority mean? If they just mean numbers, why don’t we refer to men in the U.S. as minorities? What is the difference between racial groups and ethnic groups? Blacks, for example, are clearly more than one ethnic group, and Hispanics are clearly more than one race.

The problems go beyond nomenclature. I believe that it is important for groups to gain mutual understanding and work together. But what are the conditions and assumptions that can support these collaborations? Is there some similar experience—immigration, exclusion, income level, education, culture or history—that might help to bring these groups together and reduce the tension between them? Are there institutional or structural issues that make cooperation—or competition—more likely, such as competing in a school system? It is not surprising that people who voluntarily immigrate to the U.S. from great distances are more likely to believe in the American Dream than those living here historically denied the dream. Asians are disaggregated, while other groups are not. This might make sense, but it needs some explanation. Ten percent of Blacks are foreign-born. Does this impact how they answer the questions in the poll? We do not know. One might think that Africans who come to the U.S. as immigrants, not refugees, might have similar opinions about the American Dream as other immigrants.

There are some surprises in this poll. For example, Blacks and Hispanics both indicate experiencing a high degree of discrimination, 92% and 85% respectively. Asians report discrimination at much lower levels. Yet Hispanics were the most likely to believe that every American has an equal opportunity to succeed. It might be useful to point out where there is significant tension between what a group believes and what it experiences.

Finally, there were a few questions that stand out as odd, if not problematic. For example, why are groups being asked about their fear of Blacks and no other populations or Hispanics taking jobs?

While there are a number of issues with this poll that need attention, the poll is a move in the right direction toward a deeper nuanced understanding of how different racial and ethnic groups understand each other. New American Media and its partners should be congratulated for this undertaking. But more work is needed.

john a. powell , a PRRAC Board member, is Executive Director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and holds the Williams Chair in Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the Moritz College of Law, The Ohio State University.

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