Roundtable: College Students Debate Pew Poll on Race

A trio of college students reacts to a recent Pew poll on racial attitudes, which finds pessimism among African-Americans on issues related to societal progress. The roundtable discusses why the report's findings, including data on the state of intercultural relations in America, aren't so surprising.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the next big thing in fashion - two things actually. A New York designer who actually makes clothing for real women, you know, people who don't think a dress should cost the same as a car, and fashion for the modest. We'll let you know what that's all about.

But first, yesterday, we discussed the newly-released Pew poll done in association with NPR. The poll explores racial attitudes among whites, Hispanics and African-Americans in the U.S.

We began our conversation yesterday with a scholar and journalist who both happened to be baby boomers. We also talked with an icon of the civil rights generation for our Wisdom Watch conversation.

Today, we want to get reactions from another generation - a group of 20-somethings. Joining me in the studio is Sable Nelson. She's a senior in Howard University here in Washington D.C.

Joining us from KNOW in St. Paul, Minnesota, is Nancy Lo. She's a graduate student at the University of St. Thomas. She's an international student from Belize.

And Monice Purnell is in her second year at Kennedy King Community College in Chicago. She joins us from NPR Chicago Bureau.

MARTIN: Welcome to you all.

Ms. MONICE PURNELL (Sophomore Student, Kennedy-King Community College): Good evening.

Ms. SABLE NELSON (Senior Student, Howard University): Good evening.

Ms. NANCY LO (Graduate Student, University of St. Thomas): Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, the headline for many people who were at the survey was that African-Americans have grown more downbeat about the state of black progress in this country. And I wondered whether you were surprised by this, Sable?

Ms. nelson: I was certainly surprised especially being here in D.C. and being in Howard campus because even though we see the reality, it isn't necessarily that we think that this is going to be negative all the time. We're actually empowered by it. We really want to see the change and make the change happen. So I was surprised to see that people were pessimistic about it because pessimism implies that people may or may not want to do something to change their outlook.

MARTIN: Hmm. Monice, what about you?

Ms. PURNELL: Well, actually I was not surprised. I live many of these things that were going on in the survey every day. So I was kind of disappointed, but I wasn't shocked.

MARTIN: And Nancy, how did that strike you? I know you're an international student, as I mentioned, you came here from Belize. Was that interesting to you?

Ms. LO: It was extremely interesting because when I came here and I see the people here, especially the black people very empowered here. And it's the same with my country. The people are empowered, and they tend to be a little bit pessimistic, but they still believe that things can get better.

MARTIN: To what do you attribute this pessimism? Monice, why don't you start because you said you weren't surprised it was disappointing, but not…

Ms. PURNELL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …necessarily surprising. So…

Ms. PURNELL: Right.

MARTIN: …to what do you attribute this point of view?

Ms. PURNELL: Well, I understood many things that was going on in the survey. For one, at the beginning it said that the blacks cannot be considered a single race anymore. (Unintelligible) racial…

MARTIN: Well, let me just clarify what it is that…

Ms. PURNELL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: they're talking about. There was a finding in the survey that says that by a ratio of two to one, African-Americans say that the values of poor and middle-class blacks have grown more dissimilar over the past…

Ms. PURNELL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …decade. And then that also - that conclusion led some people to think that perhaps the African-American community is now so diverse that perhaps it shouldn't even be considered a single race anymore.

Ms. PURNELL: Right.

MARTIN: Okay. So, go ahead.

Ms. PURNELL: I know that middle-class blacks, they are trying to basically become a part of the dominant culture. When they reach that financial status and get a secure education and career, they kind of like leave other blacks in the dust.

MARTIN: You say they. You are trying to get an education, aren't you?

Ms. PURNELL: When I say they, I mean, blacks that are already at that standard. Yeah, I'm still in school. Every day, I mean, we have - not just the instructors in my school, but other city colleges of Chicago that - they feel that it's not restricted opportunity. It's more of their attitudes towards life. And that's not necessarily true. I mean, it's hard for everyone, especially those that have been raised in poor neighborhoods. So it's not as easy for them to just get an education and, you know, just continue on in life. It's really rough.

MARTIN: And Sable, what do you think about that - that whole question about whether the values of middle-class folks and poor folks have diverged over the past decade. Now, I know a decade is like half your life. So…

Ms.NELSON: Right.

MARTIN: I'm not sure that's the easiest question for you to answer. But what do you think about that? Do you think that might be true?

Ms. NELSON: I don't necessarily agree because especially being in Howard campus, like, a lot of people think that well, we're all one group of people because all of the black students are there together.

But something that I have learned is that there is diversity within the campus. You have the people from the West Indies, you have people from Africa, you have bright people who came from slavery, who descended and came from slavery.

But something - even though we may have different values in terms of education and economic outlook, we're still united as a culture. So this idea of us, there being two black races, I don't necessarily agree with that. But the values, they are sometimes different.

MARTIN: Really? How so? How do you see that?

Ms. NELSON: Because in some societies, there in certain communities, you may have a focus on getting that education and going to college. And I know in certain areas that students aren't led to go to college. They are told to work in specific areas, to go and work not necessarily jobs that will pay as much and get those good benefits. But just because the values are different doesn't mean that we can't share the same outlook and want to improve as a race.

MARTIN: Monice, I wanted to push on you a little bit on this question…

Ms. PURNELL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …because, well, I heard some anger in your voice in talking about that finding. So what I want to ask you is do you think it's not true that the values are different, or do you resent the fact that people think that it is or talk to me a little bit, if you will?

Ms. PURNELL: Well, I believe the values are different. As I said before, basically, when you grow up in a poor neighborhood or, you know, blacks - they grow up in poverty - it is different for them. Just as Sable said, it's harder for them as far as they are pushed to get a job. I mean, many times they have to. You have to look at broken homes. And as a single parent, oftentimes, the child has to get out - the oldest child. As soon as they finish high school or as soon as I finish grammar school, I have to work through high school and sometimes not even go to college. So the values have to be different. I mean, growing up in poverty versus growing up with a nice financial status is going to be different.

MARTIN: Do you feel that - so the question that Sable was answering that diversity is such now that there really isn't one African-American group or race in this country. I don't even know really quite how to describe that because I have to confess to you, this is a new thing to me. This whole…

Ms. NELSON: Right.

MARTIN: …idea is new to me. This is the first anybody had mention this to me. You know, other than what Sable was saying, the born-here, born-there dichotomy.

Ms. NELSON: Right.

MARTIN: The fact that you do have more first-generation Diasporans, you know…

Ms. PURNELL: Mm-hmm.

Ms. NELSON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …first-generation Africans, first-generation people from the Caribbean here.

Ms. PURNELL: Right.

MARTIN: But that's the first I've heard about people saying there is no one black race. But Monice, what do you think about that? Do you think that's true?

Ms. PURNELL: I wouldn't agree with that. But, I mean, on the outside looking in, it was seen, you know, other cultures or other races they were looking at blacks, they were seen that way because it's almost like - integratible(ph) yet, segregated within our thoughts. That's the way it looks. But, you know, we all have to a certain degree particular values. It's just that we have our different ways of getting or reaching that goal.

MARTIN: Nancy, what's interesting about this to me is that in this country because of law, history and tradition that if you have, you know, the one-drop rule, you've heard this, that if you have one drop of black blood, you are considered…

Ms. LO: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …black - that was kind of a legal hold over from slavery. But that is not always been the case in other places. Other places have all kinds of color, caste, race, hierarchies, people call themselves, you know…

Ms. LO: Yeah.

MARTIN: …Creole, colored, you know, so forth. So how does this conversation strike you?

Ms. LO: In my country, the predominant race is the creoles, which are African and British descent. And we don't have that white-black conflict because there's not a lot of white people in our country. They're in the lower 1 percent of our population.

So for our people - and we are a Third-World country so we actually go through poverty every day. And I am actually lower-middle class as well. So we've gone through that, but our values still stay the same as a people for our country.

We value education and our government has pushed education. They have made it mandatory. They even have started a free-textbook program. And regardless of their socio-economic class, you can see some differences, but it's not predominantly enough to separate them as a people. We are all creoles.

MARTIN: Interesting. Does this conversation seem strange to you?

Ms. LO: It does a little bit.

MARTIN: What about race relations, in general, in the U.S.? Is there anything interesting to you about that or eye-opening since you came here? Is there anything that you have observed since you've been here that's different from the way you imagined it?

Ms. LO: Well, days off of television, not really. But there are some differences.

MARTIN: Tell me more. Tell me.

Ms. LO: Especially with the whites and the blacks, I never seen so much tension and I do see it a lot here. I mean, in our country, there is always that prejudice and that racism too. But for us it's more unspoken. And here, you can actually see that people not intermingling and they actually avoid each other to some degree, while in Belize, each culture, each ethnicity, they have a role in our society so they are forced to intermingle every single day.

MARTIN: If you are just joining us, we're talking about issues of race with three students - Sable Nelson, a senior at Howard University, Nancy Lo, a graduate student at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, and Monice Purnell, she's in her second year at Kennedy-King Community College in Chicago.

The other dynamic, of course, in the U.S. now is they're increasing the Latino population. Some people might call it Latino Diaspora. Latinos are now the largest minority group in the United States.

One I gathered interesting things about the survey that perceptions at each group had of each other and the way they get along very different. And I don't know if that comes out to you, Sable - that for example, African-Americans thought that they had - blacks and Hispanics have excellent relations and…

Ms. NELSON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …Latinos said, ah, not so much…

Ms. NELSON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …whereas, you know, Latinos thought that blacks and whites had excellent relations and blacks said, ah, not so much.

Ms. NELSON: Mm-hmm. Well, I'm from Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the differences between the way the races got along there was very, very pronounced that you would think that with Milwaukee being a majority-minority city that we would all get along and we would all try to work towards our common goals, but that is what's not the case. You'd have the Puerto Ricans in one camp and then you had the African-Americans in one camp and you'd have all the different rights organizations working toward the same goals separately thinking that while one of us is in bed with somebody who could get us through a higher position in life, we're doing all this infighting and actually, we're hurting ourselves more than we're helping each other.

MARTIN: Hmm, interesting. Monice, what do you thing about that, the whole black-white-Latino dynamic?

Ms. PURNELL: It seems as if, in our own cultures as far as I say the African-American culture and the Latino cultures and our own cultures it probably would seem that the other culture is being pushed farther, but in actuality, that's not true.

MARTIN: You know…

Ms. PURNELL; The Latinos and blacks are - we're both trying to fight for a position.

MARTIN: I'm thinking about the fact that college or university, for some young people, it's the first time many people are really exposed to people from different backgrounds, and I know that, Sable, you go to HBCU, an historically black college which is predominantly white, but it is still diverse, there's still diversity on campus. Is there anything about the college, university experience that has changed the way you think about people from other backgrounds?

Ms. NELSON: Well, I certainly was surprised to learn about the differences within the black Diaspora because I had originally came to Howard thinking that, well, we all have brown skin, that we all pretty much kind of have similar values but just being able to talk with people in the yard and understand where they're coming from - my West Indian friend and my African friend and even some of the Latino and white people who come to Howard. One of my best girlfriends who goes to Howard is white and just getting her opinion, being present from the majority race and at HBCU and her experiences have certainly opened up my eyes.

MARTIN: That's interesting because she was - has the rare experience of being a minority.

Monice, what about you? Anything about your college experience that has changed the way you think about people from different backgrounds?

Ms. PURNELL: Well, actually, my college is predominantly black. We do have Latinos there - they're scattered, though - I might see a couple of them, maybe going to lunch or whatever, but I was exposed, I guess, to different cultures when I was around 13 or 14 and I had sang with people from different cultures, so that's when I was exposed to…

MARTIN: So it's just not that different from you?

Ms. PURNELL: Right. No, it's not. Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And, Nancy Lo, what about you?

Ms. LO: I've been to two schools in America, and they've both been predominantly white, which has been very strange. The first school I went to was in Wisconsin and the people that went to that school came from small towns and they kind of backed off a little bit. They seemed to be afraid of something different. So in the beginning, especially with the international kids, they always stuck together at first. But after awhile, we started to adapt a little bit towards it.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. And is there anything that changed the way you think about people from different backgrounds as a result of that experience?

Ms. LO: When you're international and you come to this country, you immediately kind of bond with other internationals. But after you get to know them, you start to see the differences in our cultures and sometimes personalities clash just because you know we're all international doesn't mean we're the same.

MARTIN: Hmm. That's always the case, isn't it? I want to talk about hip-hop and rap. The survey asked whether people think that hip-hop and rap are a positive influence on society or a negative influence on society, and majorities of all groups - blacks, whites and Hispanics - agreed that hip-hop has had a bad influence on society, most particularly the rap portion of hip-hop. Now, I'm sure all of you have heard your fair share of critique of rap and hip-hop. I wanted to ask about that finding. What do you make of it? Sable, do you want to start?

Ms. NELSON: Well, I am of the opinion that it does have a negative influence on the society, but I think people are discounting the positive aspects of people who are trying to use hip-hop - not necessarily rap - as a vehicle for change. You have, like, groups at the Hip-hop Coalition who are working to make sure that young people who listen to their entertainment actively participate and try to influence politics, and I think that's very important.

MARTIN: Monice, what do you think?

Ms. PURNELL: Well, I feel that, basically, the rap portion of hip-hop does have a negative impact, but also what I would like to state is that there's positive rap out there however it's not being pushed into mainstream as the negative side of it.

MARTIN: I see what you're saying.

Nancy, what about you? I don't know if rap and hip-hop are big and Belize, but I'm guessing you probably heard your fair share since you've been here.

Ms. LO: Actually, rap and hip-hop are big also with dance, soul and reggae. I definitely would be alarmed by some of the messages, but it's taken a lot of the negative, but it's actually had a far greater impact on the world than people realize. I mean, cultures like Japan, they actually have Japanese rap and Korean has Korean rap. So the message that they're producing is not that great but the music itself is just fine.

MARTIN: Mm. Sable, what do you think?

Ms. NELSON: I think that a number of good things can come from rap, and it is truly a form of expression and even though older people may not understand it, but they have to think about it. Their parents didn't understand their music either, and didn't support their music, and they thought that, oh, my goodness, why is my daughter gyrating like that and started doing the twist. So I just -I think it is…

MARTIN: Oh, she busted us. How did she…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: She peeped our card. How did she know? Darn it.

Ms. NELSON: But, I mean, while there are…

MARTIN: I hate these smart kids.

Ms. NELSON: …while there are generational differences, I think that we do need to spend some time and have a dialogue about the negative images that the art form does create and try to reduce the effect of those images in our community.

MARTIN: Sable, for our final go around, we started out by talking about pessimism and the fact that a lot of the folks surveyed didn't have great feelings about the direction that the community was going in, black folks in particular. What - I'd like to ask for you. Do you feel optimistic? What do you think?

Ms. NELSON: Well, certainly there will be improvement in terms of the idealism and what people really want. It's not impossible, and what I really hope that people take from this poll is, not to be pessimistic, but to be optimistic; is to look at things the way they are now and realize, you know what, this is not where we want to be and that's really what's important here, not necessarily being pessimistic about right now, but thinking about what you can do to improve tomorrow.

MARTIN: Monice, what about you?

Ms. PURNELL: I certainly agree. I would not want to just take this poll and place it to the side. I want to use this as fuel for the fire to continue on and try and change some of these things that's actually going on today.

MARTIN: Hm. Nancy?

Ms. LO: I agree with everything everyone said so far. I think there is, of course, optimism - I mean, hope. You can never lose hope because if you do then what do you have to go by? A lot of countries in the world are struggling, too, and they've taken a long time to just even make small progresses, but even small battles won are still a victory.

MARTIN: Nancy Lo is a graduate student at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. She joined us from member station KNOW in St. Paul, Minnesota. Monice Purnell is a second year student at Kennedy King Community College. She joined us from our Chicago bureau. And Sable Nelson is a senior at Howard University. She joined us in our studio in Washington. Ladies, thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Ms. NELSON: Thank you.

Ms. LOWE: Thank you.

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