Chicago is caught in a violent spiral. Homicides are up 52 percent over last year and most of the victims have been African-American, in neighborhoods already racked with poverty, poor housing and failing schools.
The Times has been zeroing in on Chicago all year (check out our explanation for why Chicago is more violent than New York) and this weekend a team of reporters and photographers will fan out across Chicago for a project we’ll send your way next week.
Many of you, our Race/Related readers, are already familiar with Chicago’s struggles. Warren Guthrie, a filmmaker doing long form video interviews about the violence, wrote in to tell us most of his subjects tell him, “I never expected to live past 21.”
We figured it was a good time, then, to take a deeper look at Chicago.
First up, Giovanni Russonello, who worked on our recent poll of Chicago residents, explaining just how hard it can be to measure racial bias.
– Damien Cave
What Polling Can and Cannot Tell Us
Here at The Times’ polling department, we often try to assess the state of race relations and discrimination in the United States. It’s a difficult task because conversations about race often rely on coded language or careful discussion, which means there are certain things we can know through surveys, and a lot we cannot quantify.
Some divisions are relatively easy to identify. For example, The Times’ recent poll of Chicago, conducted with the Kaiser Family Foundation, revealed that African Americans and Latinos are generally less satisfied than whites with police and city services, and they are markedly more likely to say that racial discrimination is a major problem. This tracks with historical trends, including our own national poll in July 2015.
But what makes polling on race so difficult, and so interesting, is that so-called “desirability bias” often takes hold: Many people know which kinds of responses will be seen as socially unacceptable or desirable, and that often shapes what they say.
In our Chicago poll, a surprising finding was hidden beyond the responses. When asked how diverse their neighborhoods were, 45 percent of polled Chicagoans said that most people living around them were of a different race. Yet a close analysis of U.S. Census data shows that the true number is just 30 percent. By double-digit margins, African Americans, whites and Latinos all overestimated the diversity of their neighborhoods.
Large swaths of Chicagoans, it seems, wanted to believe or wanted to tell us that they are living amidst more diversity than they actually are.
Most notably, just 49 percent of whites said that they lived around mostly white people. But in a city where housing segregation was official government policy for much of the 20th century, 72 percent of whites actually live in majority-white Census tracts (typically made up of a few blocks). All of which make you wonder: what else do people, especially whites, get wrong when they talk about race?
Counting Racists. No Easy Task.
Social science’s most ambitious attempt to measure bias and racial resentment is the General Social Survey — a rigorous study that has been conducted regularly by in-person interviewers since 1972.
It includes a battery of questions designed to test racial resentment. Respondents are asked whether African Americans ought to be able to lift themselves up by their bootstraps despite social challenges, whether they lack initiative, whether discrimination is responsible for racial inequity, and whether blacks are more hardworking, or less, than whites.
“We routinely ask questions about race, and we routinely find evidence of racial bias,” Vincent Hutchings, a professor at the University of Michigan and a member of the survey’s Board of Overseers, said in an interview.
And yet, the survey can only uses respondents’ answers to put them somewhere along a spectrum. That means we cannot provide a clean percentage of respondents who do and don’t harbor bias.
“What’s difficult is putting a point estimate on it,” said Jocelyn Kiley, associate director of research at Pew Research Center. “You can build a robust scale, you can pick up on people who are more prejudiced or less prejudiced on that scale — but it’s hard to say 40 percent of people hold prejudice on this issue.”
Good News and Bad News
Polling is much better at measuring change in racial attitudes over time.
That’s what Seth K. Goldman and Diana Mutz, of the University of Pennsylvania, did for their book, “The Obama Effect: How the 2008 Campaign Changed White Racial Attitudes.” Using a three-item battery similar to the social survey’s, Goldman and Mutz found that positive television exposure to Barack Obama and his family in the 2008 campaign caused an overall decline in racial prejudice — even when that coverage was on conservative programs critical of Mr. Obama.
Another sign of expanding tolerance can be found with a commonly used measure of racism — approval of interracial dating. Pew has asked since the mid-1980s whether people think it’s acceptable for members of different races to marry, and the increase in acceptance has been significant. More than seven in 10 white Americans agree that “it’s all right for blacks and whites to date each other” — up from less than half in the 1980s — and more than nine in 10 millennials feel that way.
But these trends alone do not necessarily reveal the broader direction of the country when it comes to racism. One of the most frequently asked survey questions nationwide regards the state of race relations, and it offers a confounding counterpoint.
Last July, the Times and CBS News conducted a poll on race in America, and it found that wide majorities of blacks and whites agreed that race relations in the country were “generally bad” — among the most negative data we’d ever seen on the question.
Just three years earlier, a nearly equal majority of both groups had said they were good.
And yet, despite the dire national picture, a wide majority of respondents last July still felt that within their local communities, race relations were mostly positive.
So how did we end up with that contradiction? As with so many questions on race, it’s hard to know. For those of us in polling, every new poll’s results lead us to contemplate what other kinds of questions we might ask to paint a fuller portrait of an increasingly diverse and complicated country.