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Fox News' Juan Williams made an interesting claim about the continued existence of racism in the wake of the Charleston, S.C, shootings.
"The polls indicate this, that white people think that black people are less intelligent," Williams said on the June 22, 2015, edition of The Five. "They think they’re less trustworthy, less patriotic. At some point you’ve got to deal with these root issues."
We reached out to Williams to better understand his statement but did not hear back. We think you could interpret his words two ways.
You might think that a majority of white people believe black people are less intelligent, trustworthy and patriotic.
Or you could hear Williams' claim and think that within the white population, you’re more likely to find people who think poorly of blacks. You could have that trend even if most whites don’t think that way.
The difference in interpretation makes all the difference, polls show.
What the polls show about race
To make sense of racial attitudes, pollsters ask whites and blacks the same set of questions about their own group and the other group. Then they compare the results.
A 2012 survey from a partnership of the Associated Press, the GfK polling firm, Stanford University, the National Center for Opinion Research (NORC) and the University of Michigan attempted to answer questions about how one race thought of the other.
The series of questions followed the pattern of, "How well does each of these words describe most blacks/whites?"
Words included "intelligent at school," "smart at everyday things," "law abiding," "good neighbors" and "dependable."
The possible responses were Extremely well, Very well, Moderately well, Slightly well and Not at all well.
Josh Pasek, a researcher at the University of Michigan who worked on the project, broke down the results for us to help analyze Williams' claim. "Intelligent at school" and "smart at everyday things" are approximations for intelligence. "Law abiding," "good neighbors" and "dependable" work as stand-ins for trustworthy. (Alas, the survey did not ask about patriotism.)
This approach lets you tease out how many whites have negative opinions of whites, and how many whites have negative opinions of blacks. And you can compare that to black perspectives on whites and blacks.
The results: A majority of whites don't hold negative views of blacks. But you will find a group of whites who view blacks more harshly than whites. And that group is bigger than the fraction of blacks who see blacks negatively.
The following chart shows the negative opinions of whites. The green bar is the percentage of whites holding a negative opinion of blacks. The brown bar is the percentage of whites holding negative views of other whites.
The higher the column, the more negative the feeling.
The clear pattern is that whites are more likely to have a negative view of blacks than of whites. To round out the picture, the fraction of blacks who hold negative views of blacks is about half that of whites.
Additional study results
We looked at other studies in this area, including one that looked at people's views on patriotism.
Intelligence. A group of researchers led by Harvard University sociologist Lawrence Bobo looked at recent trends in white attitudes about blacks. That research shows that since 1990, the fraction of whites who think that whites are more intelligent and more hardworking than blacks has declined.
Tom Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center (NORC), told us that "racial differences have decreased over time, but many whites still rate blacks more negatively than they rate whites on various traits." Smith said in the 2014 survey, one quarter of whites rated blacks as less intelligent than whites.
Trustworthy. Angie Maxwell, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas, told us that the 2012 Blair Center national poll found that about a fifth of whites (20 percent) say that blacks are untrustworthy.
Generally negative views. Vincent Hutchings at the University of Michigan pulled responses from the American National Election Study to assess the impact of race on the 2008 election of Barack Obama. Hutchings didn’t report how whites answered specific questions but he wrote that overall, a "slight majority of Latinos and Whites indicate that they view Blacks more negatively than they do Whites."
Patriotism. Spencer Piston, a political scientist at Syracuse University, directed us to the American National Election Study, which added patriotism to its questionnaire. Piston ran the numbers for us and found that for whites:
46 percent rate blacks less patriotic than they rate whites;
49 percent rate blacks equally patriotic to how they rate whites;
5 percent rate blacks more patriotic than they rate whites.
A final note
The connection between these survey results and overt racism is far from straightforward. Pasek at the University of Michigan said the connection between outcomes is even more complex.
"If you look at the series of recent incidents, from Trayvon Martin to Ferguson, Mo., those are not necessarily cases where people would have actively espoused racist attitudes," Pasek said. "But there could be an internal racial predisposition that would lead them to act in prejudicial ways, and social science suggests that most of us harbor these implicit biases."
Williams said polls show that white people think that black people are less intelligent, less trustworthy and less patriotic. The veracity of Williams' claim hinges on how you interpret his comments.
One way: That whites are more likely to hold negative opinions of blacks (than they do of fellow whites or blacks do of blacks), is largely accurate.
But a second way: That a majority of whites hold negative opinions of blacks, is inaccurate.
On the question of patriotism, the data are thin. But what we have suggests that Williams is wrong.
Williams’ statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details. We rate it Half True.
Fox News, The Five, June 22, 2015
iMedia Ethics, What the AP Poll on Racial Attitudes Really Tells Us, Part 1, Nov. 4, 2012
Princeton University Press, Social trends in American Life: The real record on racial attitudes, 2012
Associated Press, AP poll: Majority harbor prejudice against blacks, Oct. 27, 2015
American Journal of Political Science, The Spillover of Racialization into Health Care: How President Obama Polarized Public Opinion by Racial Attitudes and Race, Feb. 13, 2012
Psychological Science, Ideology and Prejudice, April 2012
Race and Social Problems, A "Subterranean Agenda"? Racial Attitudes, Presidential Evaluations, and Tea Party Membership, June 18, 2013
Interview, Josh Pasek, assistant professor, Department of Communications, University of Michigan, June 23, 2015
Email interview, Spencer Piston, assistant professor, Political Science Department, Syracuse University, June 24, 2015
Email interview, Tom Smith, director, General Social Survey, NORC, University of Chicago, June 23, 2015
Email interview, Vincent Hutchings, professor, Department of Political Science, University of Michigan, June 24, 2015
Email interview, Angie Maxwell, assistant professor, Department of Political Science, University of Arkansas, June 23, 2015
Email interview, Michael Tesler, assistant professor, Department of Political Science, University of California-Irvine, June 23, 2015
Interview, John Chambers, social psychologist, June 23, 2015
Email interview, Tatishe M. Nteta, assistant professor, Department of Political Science, University of Massachusetts- Amherst, June 24, 2015
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