No one can dispute that America is currently undergoing a racial reckoning. Ever since the killing of George Floyd in the spring of 2020, a nation-wide soul-searching over racism has seized hold of the collective imagination, with everyone from massive corporations to national media outlets leading the charge against America's enduring—even rising—white supremacism.
But what if everyone is wrong? What if the media and the national conversation isn't exposing racism so much as creating it, or at least, creating the impression that it is far more prevalent than we thought?
This is what I found in my recent report for the Manhattan Institute, The Social Construction of Racism in the United States. The report is an analysis of a wide variety of data sources, including several new surveys that I conducted. And what I found is that media exposure, partisanship and a person's anxiety or depression levels explain much of what passes for racism today—as well as essentially all of its reported rise.
We know this in a more general sense on an intuitive level. The idea that party identification shapes perception, for example, is pretty uncontroversial. And social scientists have long known that exposure to unusual events that make news shapes our perceptions; Gallup surveys consistently show that concern with racism tends to spike after major events like the Ferguson protests, George Floyd's killing or Trump's election.
But this effect has been in hyperdrive in recent years. And there's evidence to suggest that the constant beating of the racism drum has led many to see racism where they didn't previously.
Mentions of racism in national news outlets have soared since 2015. And this media activity has coincided with a drop in the number of Americans who describe Black-white relations as good. From 2002 to 2013, 70 percent of Americans believed that race relations were good, a number that dropped to half after 2014.
How do I know that negative media attention to race, rather than a worsening reality, is driving perception? Here's where my research comes in. To get at this question, I asked respondents the following question: Did they believe young Black men were more in danger of dying in a car crash, or of being shot by police?
There is a correct answer to that question: Cars are around ten times more lethal to young Black men than police bullets. But it was something people on one side of the political spectrum were much more likely to know than the other side. I asked respondents a second question to test this: Do they believe white Republicans are racist? And what I found was that people who answered yes to the second question, who believe white Republicans are racist, were much less likely to accurately assess whether cars or cops were more lethal to Black men.
My surveys found that 70 percent of white Americans and 95 percent of Black Americans who agree with the statement "white Republicans are racist" believe that young Black men are more likely to be shot by the police than to be killed in a traffic accident. Fully 53 percent of Biden voters got the answer wrong—compared to just 15 percent of Trump voters.
This is not about intelligence or being informed. Indeed, educational attainment made no difference to the result.
Much of the false perception we have of rising racism is due to traditional news media. But a lot of it comes from social media, too, which is accelerating the problem.
In the same survey, 53 percent of Black Americans who use social media said they had experienced "people acting suspicious" around them—compared to 31 percent of Black Americans who do not use social media. Across several questions, controlling for age, income, education and other factors, social media exposure significantly increased a Black person's sense that they had been a victim of racial discrimination.
And rather than a corrective, higher education—where students are exposed to far left ideas on race like critical race theory—may lead to even greater sensitivity to racism. Research tends to find that minorities with degrees are more likely to report discrimination than their non-college educated counterparts. My surveys also showed that college-educated Black Americans are significantly more likely than those without a degree to be offended by so-called microaggressions, like people saying, "I don't notice race."
But this isn't just a question of getting a question wrong on a survey. The effect this false perception of rising racism is having on society—especially on Black Americans—is devastating. And just reading a few paragraphs written by someone with an extreme view on racism in America can have an impact, I found.
I asked some Black survey respondents to read a passage from the critical race theory-inspired writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example, a passage from Coates' writing about how "the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body." To others I gave nothing to read, or a mild paragraph.
What I found was staggering: Reading even a single paragraph from Coates had a significant impact on Black respondents' ability to believe in their own agency.
Just 68 percent of Black respondents who read Coates' paragraph agreed with the statement, "When I make plans, I am almost certain that I can make them work"—compared to 83 percent of those who did not, a statistically-significant effect.
In other words, even brief exposure to critical race theory narratives disempowers Black people. This reinforces previous research that found that heightened perceptions of racism caused harm to Black Americans.
Moreover, the effect is being amplified by politics and higher education. Black Biden voters were twice as likely as Black Trump voters to say that they personally experienced more racism under Trump than under Obama. And liberal Black Americans with a college degree were almost 30 points more likely to be offended by white people saying things like "I don't notice people's race" or "America is a colorblind society" than were Black Americans without degrees who identify as conservative.
There was, however, consistency on one front: Throughout my surveys, African-Americans see themselves as independent and resilient, while white liberals are more inclined to see them as weak and needing protection.
When asked whether political correctness was demeaning to Black people or necessary to protect them, 51 percent of Black liberals chose "demeaning" and 49 percent "necessary." But white liberals chose "necessary" by a 62-38 margin.
You can see this in another one of the survey questions. I asked respondents "If you had to choose, which is your ideal society?" One option was, "Minorities have grown so confident that racially offensive remarks no longer affect them." The other option read, "The price for being racist is so high that no one makes racially offensive remarks anymore." Again, the difference between Black and white respondents was significant, and instructive: 47 percent of Black liberals chose the resilient option in which they were immune to racially offensive remarks, compared to just 29 percent of white liberals.
In casting Black Americans as uniquely in need of protection, white liberals are actually having that impact, shaping a reality that harms people of color.
And this perception is in direct contradiction with reality. Attitudes to inter-racial marriage and interaction have become steadily more liberal across the nation, while the number of Black people shot by the police has declined by 60-80 percent since the 1960s.
When the media exaggerates the level of racism in America, redefining non-racist words and actions as racist, this distortion of reality is not just false; it's actively disempowering minorities.
Racism, like crime, is unlikely to ever fall to zero. But progressive media's mining for racism has reached a point of diminishing returns, with perceptions doing more harm than good.
This piece originally appeared at Newsweek
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