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Perceptions of Racial Traits

- July 16, 2008

Over at my old blog PolySigh, Steven Medvic has an interesting post about the prevalence of racial stereotypes. Using data from the 2004 NES, he shows that respondents are much less likely to consider Blacks and Hispanics as hardworking, intelligent, and trustworthy than they are whites:

Respondents were given “a seven-point scale on which the characteristics of the people in a group can be rated.” Whites, blacks, Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans were to be rated in terms of how hardworking, intelligent, and trustworthy they are. Any score of 1, 2 or 3 means the respondent thinks – more or less – that most members of the various groups are hardworking, intelligent, and trustworthy. Here are the results (in terms of the percentage of respondents saying 1, 2, or 3) for whites, blacks, and Hispanics:

Hardworking
Whites – 53.9%
Blacks – 28.1%
Hispanics – 48.5%

Intelligent
Whites – 58.3%
Blacks – 35.4%
Hispanics – 33.5%

Trustworthy
Whites – 49.2%
Blacks – 29.6%
Hispanics – 32.3%

These are simply astonishing numbers and indicate significant (and probably deep-seated) racist stereotyping. (Incidentally, the percentage saying Asians are hardworking, intelligent, and trustworthy are 66.7, 61.4, and 41.2, respectively.) Of course, Sen. Obama will, perhaps to a large extent, be viewed as an individual and, as such, will be thought to differ from most members of his race. But these numbers suggest the difficulty he’ll face if race becomes a salient feature of this campaign.

Steve’s correct, but let me go further by looking at how people compare the traits of their own group to other groups. Below is a table based on the same data that looks at how respondents rate how hardworking whites are compared to blacks. Positive numbers indicate that they think whites are more hardworking than blacks. Negative numbers indicate that they think blacks are more hardworking than whites. Since the scale runs from 1 (lazy) to 7 (hardworking), the numbers run from -6 (blacks hardworking/whites lazy) to +6 (whites hardworking/blacks lazy). Scores of zero indicate that both groups were rated equally hardworking.

WhitesBlacks
Whites lazy/Blacks hardworking-6 0.0% 0.00%
-5 0.1% 0.65%
-4 0.0% 0.65%
-3 0.4% 6.49%
-2 0.9% 2.60%
-1 2.7% 9.09%
Whites and Blacks Equal047.3%56.49%
123.7%14.29%
214.5%3.90%
36.4%4.55%
42.7%0.65%
50.9%0.65%
Whites hardworking/Blacks lazy60.4%0.00%

The table shows that while most whites rate both groups equally, nearly half of whites (48.6 percent) believe that blacks are, to some degree, less hardworking than whites. In comparison, only 19 percent of black rated themselves more hardworking than whites.

Here are the comparisons for intelligence:

Whites Blacks
Whites unintelligent/Blacks intelligent -6 0.00% 0.66%
-5 0.00% 0.00%
-4 0.13% 1.32%
-3 0.00% 0.66%
-2 0.52% 5.26%
-1 1.04% 7.89%
Whites and Blacks Equal 0 59.32% 67.76%
1 18.25% 12.50%
2 11.99% 1.32%
3 5.74% 1.32%
4 1.83% 0.66%
5 0.65% 0.00%
Whites intelligent/Blacks unintelligent 6 0.52% 0.66%

These numbers aren’t quite as bad as those for hardworking, but nearly forty percent of whites think blacks are less intelligent than whites. In comparison, only 16 percent of blacks thought blacks were more intelligent than whites.

Finally, here are the comparisons on whether blacks and whites are trustworthy:

Whites Blacks
Whites untrustworthy/Blacks trustworthy -6 0.00% 0.00%
-5 0.00% 0.00%
-4 0.26% 3.97%
-3 0.26% 3.97%
-2 0.79% 6.62%
-1 1.96% 13.25%
Whites and Blacks Equal 0 59.55% 58.28%
1 17.54% 11.92%
2 11.65% 0.00%
3 5.10% 0.66%
4 2.09% 0.66%
5 0.52% 0.66%
Whites trustworthy/Blacks untrustworthy 6 0.26% 0.00%

Again, the pattern for whites is similar to the previous tables. Nearly forty percent of whites think blacks are less trustworthy than whites. Among blacks, the number who rank blacks higher than whites on trustworthy is a bit higher (27 percent) than on the other traits. Given America’s history over the last 400 years, it’s probably no surprise that blacks are more likely to question whites’ trustworthiness compared to other traits.

Overall, these tables show that significant percentages of white Americans think that blacks are lazier, less intelligent, and less trustworthy than whites. And while some blacks similarly rank their own race higher than whites on these traits, they percentages are still much lower than among whites.