If we want a new race conversation, we’d better start with a better approach to
Earth to everyone. It’s not a black and white world anymore. Especially not in
the U.S. So why are polls on race, in their execution and their findings, still
mired in a polarizing black/white paradigm?
The world is too nuanced for just black and white answers. There are others in
the mix, and large groups of others, like Asians and Hispanics. And yet time and
again, in many polls, these large groups are treated as if they aren’t even in
Case in point: Did you see that new New York Times/CBS poll on race relations?
These days the news anchor in my life isn’t Walter Cronkite or Connie Chung. (No
one cares all that much about the fall of Brian Williams or the ascendancy of
Lester Holt. I do. But I’m a news nerd). No, the news anchor in my life is my
iPhone, and on Thursday, this came blaring through:
Breaking news? Really? Like an ISIS threat? No, just another race poll.
The story put out the alarm, “Nearly six in 10 Americans, including heavy
majorities of both whites and blacks, think race relations are generally bad and
that nearly four in 10 think the situation is getting worse.”
And then just to make sure you knew this was really 5-alarm stuff: “By
comparison, two-thirds of Americans surveyed shortly after President Obama took
office said they believed that race relations were generally good.”
So now we know how low we’ve sunk. We’re just back to the early 2000s.
All the poll really proves is that we tend to feel good when good things happen.
And we tend to feel really, really bad when cops shoot black people and when a
white racist shoots black churchgoers.
After nine people are killed in an historically black church in Charleston,
after racially charged police violence in South Carolina, Baltimore, Staten
Island, and Ferguson, I don’t need a poll to tell me race relations are poor.
It’s the reason I quickly read through the “things are terrible” story to see
what Asian Americans thought. Or what Latinos thought. About anything.
I couldn’t find much. Apparently, we don’t count.
Once again, the Times excluded our views on race. That’s not the good kind of
The guts of the poll reveals some Asian Americans were surveyed, about 4
percent. But not enough of a sample to say with any authority what Asian
Same with Latinos. Just 15 percent.
It’s typical of the shortcomings of polls. Sure, there was a random sample of
cell phone users. But to really get the opinions of Asians and Latinos, you need
to oversample, and even poll in languages besides English.
Otherwise, it’s just a poll on race in black and white–not in color. It’s just
part of the story. As a journalistic problem, this is similar to the Times
relying just on official government sources in major stories involving the
Middle East, as pointed out by Glenn Greenwald. (Coincidentally, it was the same
problem with the way the Times reported on the Wen Ho Lee story).
This full partial poll on race is the kind of poll that makes you hate polls
altogether. You may already barely tolerate political polls, but at least with
candidates, it’s simple enough. It’s a horse race.
But where’s the horse race on the poll on race? Today we hate each other,
yesterday we loved each other? Does that really help? Does it feed or confirm
stereotypes, or become a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy?
I’d say a more nuanced poll that sampled broadly and were more inclusive of
Asian American and Latino sentiments might show less concern about race, more
concern about other things, like economic inequality.
But leaving us out, once again, reminds us that Asian American opinions don’t
Maybe the Times felt guilty about sending out such an offensive alarm, as the
bulletin ends with this note: “Respondents tended to have much sunnier views of
race relations in their own communities.”
But doesn’t that vaguely sound like a sentimental yearning for the good old
That’s how the bulletin ended, and now back to your sunny, carefree summer.
That is, until the real breaking news story of the day—the theatre shooting in
The shooter, now identified as 59-year old John Russell Houser, may have been
the angry white male, but he didn’t discriminate. He seemed to shoot at everyone
in that Lafayette movie house, leaving three dead and nine wounded as of Friday
He also went to see “Trainwreck.”
I wonder if he was offended by Amy Schumer’s joke about her not having any
pictures of black friends in her iPhone. She had one picture of a black
There is one twitter account that could be Houser’s. It bears a tweet from 2013,
in which Houser praises one of the most rabid hate groups around, the Westboro
The tweets ended back in 2013.
Houser probably wasn’t one of the whites who participated in the New York
Times race poll. But you know there are many who share his sentiments out
there. We don’t need a poll to know that.
But in the end, we’re right back in the same place we started.
There’s just one question to ask, and it’s not a poll question: Exactly what are
we going to do to make it all better?