19 The Tower of Babel
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19 The Tower of Babel ELEANOR MARIE BROWN Social scientists have identified a number of features that characterize contemporary white attitudes toward blacks. First, traditional stereotypes and blatant discrimination are no longer common. Most whites, regardless of their political orientation, reject these traditional forms of discrimination. This is particularly true of white liberals who condition their behavior toward blacks on beliefs that strongly condemn traditional discrimination. Second, whites use ostensibly nonracial factors to justify any behavior that may have a disproportionate impact on blacks or could be perceived as being racist. Third, whites harbor attitudes of ambivalence toward blacks resulting in extreme positive or negative reactions. These attitudes are amplified by individualistic notions of opportunity that cause whites to explain disproportionate black disadvantage by individual black shortcomings rather than larger societal failures. Attitudinal surveys by social scientists almost unanimously show marked improvements in white perceptions of African-Americans and other minorities, and the commitment of whites to using the law to prohibit racial discrimination. The most recent report of the National Research Council (NRC)l concludes that white commitment to legal enforcement of integrationist principles has been steadily increasing.2 Northern whites are more likely to hold egalitarian views, but Southerners have also become increasingly egalitarian. For example, in one of the early national surveys on school integration in 1942, only 2% of Southerners and 40% of Northerners supported integrated schools. In 1970, the numbers had increased to 45% and 83%, respectively, and in the late 1980s the percentages were even higher. Since the late 1950s, the number of whites willing to vote for a black candidate has increased from 37% to 81 %, while those willing to have a black neighbor swelled from 56% to 86%. Some social scientists were so impressed by the improved racial attitudes that they described these results as a "liberalleap."3 Yet even as white commitment to de jure racial equality has increased, the NRC report shows"substantially less support for policies intended to implement principles of racial equality." The report notes that "whites are more accepting of equal treatment with regard to the public domains of life than private domains of life, and they are especially accepting of relations involving transitory forms of contact."4 For example, although white support for desegregated schools increased by 22 % between 1964 and 1978, support for federal interventionist policies to implement these principles decreased by 17%. Similar disparities between theoretical support and actual implementation policies exist with respect to integration of neighborhoods, job opportunities, Reprinted by permission of The Yale taw Journal Company and Fred B. Rothman & Company from The Yale Law JOllrnal, vol. 105, pages 513-547. Copyrighted Material The Tower of Babel 113 and access to public accommodations. These paradoxical trends generally remained consistent through the late 1980s. Moreover, whites are more likely to support egalitarian principles if blacks remain in the minority. Enthusiasm for sending white children to hypothetical integrated schools generally decreases as the percentage of black children in the schools increases.s The surveys reviewed in the NRC report focus on whites' self-perceptions. As attitudinal surveys, they decline to study whites' actual practices. However, in response to some sociologists' assessment of a "liberal leap," others highlight the distinction between idealism and reality, noting that when sociologists survey what whites actually do as compared to what they say they will do, stark disparities emerge.6 John McConahay and his colleagues have concluded that many of the traditional tests used to survey prejudice are influenced by white subjects' perceptions of socially desirable responses.? Harold Sigall and Richard Page have found that white subjects who feel that they are being psychologically monitored for truthfulness are less egalitarian in their responses than whites who do not believe that they are being monitored.8 These sociologists agree that white Americans are not only less egalitarian than they appear, but also less egalitarian than they perceive themselves to be. They are proponents of what has been termed the"ambivalence theory" of racial attitudes.9 Such studies have led an increasing number of researchers to acknowledge the complexity of racial attitudes in the post-civil rights movement period. Samuel Gaertner and John Dovidio explain that "the fundamental nature of white America's current attitudes toward blacks is complex and conflicted.... The attitudes of many whites toward blacks and other minorities are neither uniformly negative nor totally favorable, but rather are ambivalent."lo To explain this ambivalence, Gaertner and Dovidio have developed a theoretical model known as "aversive racism." The...