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David Hill: Polling on racism is complicated

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From a pollster’s perspective, racism is a tough nut to crack. Is there any proven and tested battery of questions that will measure racism? For that matter, is racism a single construct, or is it a multidimensional phenomenon that renders measurement nigh impossible?

Reading the comments allegedly said by L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling reveals the complexity of this topic. First, I must remind you that Sterling was on the cusp of being given a lifetime achievement award by the Los Angeles NAACP. Next, take into account that his “racist” diatribe was made to his Asian “girlfriend.” And then note, in the comments, he speaks favorably of Magic Johnson, a black man. His objection is to the girlfriend posting pictures of herself with Magic on Instagram “for the world to see so they have to call me.” Ah, I see. He is a racist because he doesn’t want friends to call him saying they saw his Asian girlfriend with a black man. This seems to be racism with a heavy layer of psychosexual implications. I won’t go further down that road, but you can readily see that it’s complicated.

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When race is an issue in campaigns, pollsters need to get their hands around its measurement. In races where I have needed to consider the role that racism plays in voter choice, I have struggled to get it right, usually settling on an indirect strategy of asking voters whether they knew other voters who were being influenced by race. My assumption, then as now, has been that voters will not fess up to direct questions about their own racism. They may not even be self-aware of their true feelings about race and how it might affect their electoral behavior.

Other pollsters disagree about the efficacy of direct questions. Rasmussen has asked voters directly about the racism of their own race and other races. (Blacks were controversially declared most racist by whites.) An AP poll taken several weeks before the 2012 election asked batteries of questions that supposedly reveal racism. The key conclusion seemed to be that most Americans are somehow racist, that it’s getting worse, and that President Obama’s poll numbers are hurt by this racism. David Moore, a respected pundit of polling, looked deeper at the AP poll for iMediaEthics and made some remarkable observations about the conclusions:

“It appears that racism ... is much more complicated than the news story would suggest. We cannot talk about the 56% of Americans with ‘anti-black’ attitudes as being ‘racist,’ if we do not also admit that close to half of all blacks are also ‘racist’ — against their own race. If we accept the measures of anti-black attitudes as a valid indicator of racism, then we also have to accept the anti-white measures as racism. And if we do so, then we have to conclude that roughly nine in ten Americans are racist.

“But the AP news story mentions none of this. The story is written in a way that conceals from the public, rather than enlightens it, as to what ‘racism’ means in this context. Had all the findings been included, the story would have forced readers to confront a more complex picture of racism in America than the simple narrative (accurate but incomplete) that many whites harbor prejudice against blacks. Instead, the AP news story feeds us limited information that distorts the poll findings and, ironically, itself reinforces racial stereotypical thinking.”

Moore’s commentary is spot on. Curiously, a subtle form of racism itself prevents many social scientists like pollsters from deftly and honestly addressing formation of opinions built around racial constructs. In next week’s column I will explore some dimensions of “racism” that might open new avenues for researchers exploring this important topic.

Hill is a pollster who has worked for Republican campaigns and causes since 1984.