Is it conceivable that black Nashvillians are more comfortable with racial profiling than white Nashvillians? Bizarre as it seems, a public opinion survey released last week by political science professor Richard Pride and his Vanderbilt students implies just that.
Answering questions about U.S. policy on terrorism, 62 percent of respondents endorsed the notion that “people of Middle Eastern background and appearance should undergo special, more intensive security checks in order to live in this country.” This is an alarmingly high overall level of support for racial profiling, given the question’s broad phrasing to include only background and appearancenot activity or affiliation.
But the eye-catching twist that explains the poll’s front-page, above-the-fold treatment in The Tennessean last week is a racial breakdown: 74 percent of African American respondents who expressed an opinion on the issue (that is, excluding those who said “don’t know” or didn’t answer) supported more scrutiny of people of Middle Eastern background and appearance, compared to 64 percent of white and other respondents.
As a statistical matter, there may be less to the racial difference than meets the eye. The Vanderbilt poll’s 5-point margin of error inevitably grows when subgroups within the total sample (such as races) are compared, and a difference needs to be at least twice the margin of error to be truly convincing. Consequently, the 10-point gap on the ethnic profiling question is suggestive but not conclusive. The safer conclusion may be that black and white respondents endorsed profiling of people of Middle Eastern background at similarly high levels.
But the difference reasserts itself in a striking and unexpected way when the numbers are broken down further by age along with race. The racial gap in support for profiling people of Middle Eastern origin or appearance was largestand clearly significantin the youngest age group, with 76 percent of black respondents under age 40 endorsing profiling compared to 51 percent of under-40 nonblack respondents. Viewed another way, the poll suggests that resistance to profiling as an antiterrorism measure is greatest among young whites: The level of opposition among nonblacks under 40 was noticeably higher than for any other age-race category.
Vanderbilt’s Pride says it appears that the dangers of racial profiling “seem to have gotten through more to younger nonblacks than to blacks, and that’s a puzzle.”
The findings of the Vanderbilt poll are startling, given the black-white differences typical in national polls on profiling specifically and the experience of race generally. A Gallup poll last spring found (nationally) that 83 percent of blacks considered racial profiling to be “widespread” compared to 55 percent of whites. More than half of all African American men said they have experienced racially motivated police stops, according to a Washington Post poll earlier this year. More generally, the Gallup poll revealed that 60 percent of black respondents are dissatisfied with how blacks are treated in the U.S., compared to 34 percent of whites. A question about the treatment of immigrants draws a similar black-white gap.
Some may speculate that war and terrorism are uniting Americans in ways that recalibrate racial divisions in matters of social justice. Could this explain the findings on ethnic profiling in the Vanderbilt poll? The evidence suggests otherwise.
Looking again at national numbers, a Washington Post poll last week showed that compared to whites, more than double the percentage of black Americans think government is not doing enough to protect individual rights as it prosecutes the war on terrorism. A November Los Angeles Times poll found black respondents far less likely than whites to trust the federal government to do what is right most of the time (27 vs. 50 percent), and more than twice as likely as whites to oppose military action in Afghanistan (22 vs. 8 percent).
The Vanderbilt poll shows that racial differences on war-related issues hold up locally. Black respondents in Nashville are significantly less likely to support the use of American troops in Afghanistan than whites and others (77 vs. 93 percent), and by roughly similar margins, less supportive of bombing during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, of a potential military action against Iraq, and of instituting a military draft.
Viewed in this light, the high level of support among black Nashvillians for profiling people of Middle Eastern descent or appearance is difficult to explain. Ray Winbush, who directs the Race Relations Institute at Fisk University, wonders if the Vanderbilt poll accurately sampled African Americans, especially young blacks, who as the most frequent victims of pre-Sept. 11 racial profiling might be expected to recognize its pernicious threat.
In fact, the racial makeup of the Vanderbilt poll sample closely approximates the general population in Davidson County; moreover, 56 percent of black respondents were under age 40 (compared to 39 percent of nonblacks under age 40), and 25 percent were under age 24. The explanation could be simply a kind of provincialism found in this part of the country that transcends America’s usual racial divide. Fisk’s Winbush notes that Nashville has “a relatively conservative black community,” which may account for high levels of tolerance by local African Americans for antiterrorist measures that compromise civil liberties.
More philosophically, Winbush speculates that, post-Sept. 11, blacks have been replaced by Arabs and Middle Easterners as “the most hated ethnic group” in America. But Winbush regards this as temporary, predicting that blacks “will return to number one just as soon as the crisis is over, and it will be over.”
Bruce Barry is a professor at Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management.
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