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"The Survey Blues,"

by Howard Winant May/June 2008 issue of Poverty & Race

This New America Media Poll appears to be state-of-the-art stuff, although I haven’t been able to examine the underlying data. That’s on one level. Yet, looked at in another way, in terms of what these results mean about racial/ethnic identity in the U.S., about interracial conflict, belief in “the American dream,” or just about anything else, the jury is still out.

For all the professionalism of the survey design, the questions leave a lot to be desired. Essentially, respondents are asked to comment on a series of cliches about race in the United States. Such topics as social mobility by race, patterns of discrimination, fear of blacks (they “commit most of the crime,” you know…), intergroup competition, and so on have been extensively studied. Therefore, we have very good data on, say, patterns of discrimination in housing, arrest and sentencing practices, and many other similar issues. To conduct a survey on attitudes toward these topics both repeats other works and in many ways doesn’t live up to them. Indeed, so many surveys of racial attitudes have been carried out in recent years that it would require a whole bibliographic essay just to list them all with any evaluative criteria in view. Let’s just cite some important practitioners: Larry Bobo (Harvard), Howard Schuman (Univ. Michigan), Michael Dawson (Univ. Chicago), Reynolds Farley (Univ. Michigan), Jennifer Hochschild (Harvard), Joe Feagin (Texas A&M).

I’m generally suspicious of the concerns and wordings of questions. I have doubts about “construct validity” throughout this and at least some other inquiries. I wonder about the experiential dimensions and effects of interviewing people about their racial attitudes. And I am annoyed by the repeated trumpeting of “new findings” and the general pattern of publicity-seeking that the completion and publication of the most recent, and usually lavishly subsidized, survey receives. It is striking that, in the case of the NAM poll, all this fanfare is accompanied by quite wishy-washy and impressionistic statements by central figures in the project: In some ways things are better, in some ways they are worse.

Richard Rodriguez, now a major figure at NAM, makes some valuable comments and some fanciful ones in his interview about the survey. Although Latin American groups of various national origins now see themselves as “Hispanic,” he shares the U.S. Census position that “…we [Latinos/Hispanics] are not a racial group.” He adopts “the remarkable idea” that, despite interracial conflict, “the Hispanic newcomer and the Asian newcomer would see in the African American the future for themselves.” That these are hardly obvious conclusions from this or other comparable surveys goes without saying. It’s just riffing on the mainstream (or let us say left-liberal) party line.

Attitude surveys, especially in the “post-civil rights” era, will of course split the difference between narratives of “remarkable progress” and “ongoing despair,” between “inclusion” and “isolation.” Surveys at their best are snapshots of “collective subjectiv­ities,” as Durkheim might say. They are limited to an artificially constructed here and now, even when they ask much better questions than the NAM survey apparently did, like those about the black public sphere that Dawson explored in his 2001 book, Black Visions: The Roots of Contemporary African-American Political Ideologies.

So what drops out of the picture is in many ways the most important information: questions about racial democracy and racial despotism, questions about the social structure of race, questions about what the U.S. will look like when, by 2050 or so, it becomes a “majority-minority” society, questions about the vast legacy of racial exploitation that continues unchecked today. Are there any questions about incarceration, about the racial dimensions of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the subprime lending meltdown, neoliberalism at home and abroad, the reliability of elections, racial profiling, Katrina, the meaning of whiteness? Are there breakdowns of results along gender and class lines? Maybe there are; I didn’t get to see the data. But these are not the topics reported in the NY Times or highlighted at their press conference held at the National Press Club.

Don’t get me wrong. We learn something from these studies. They are the meat-and-potatoes of my field, and of many others. We gotta have them. But at the same time they are necessarily lame efforts to make sense of conflict, violence and the waste of human potential (with a little “progress” thrown in too, the result of endless outpourings of blood, sweat and tears). They are “racial formation projects” in their own right, attempts to reconcile in official and academic (and sometimes progressive) discourse opposing forces that can only be resolved though politics.

Howard Winant is Professor of Sociology at Univ. of California-Santa Barbara.

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