Poll: Cultural Tensions Causing Deep Divisions in the U.S.

According to a new poll, there is significant tension related to how African-Americans, Asians and Latinos see each others' culture in America. Sergio Bendixen, who conducted the survey for New American Media, is joined by Vijay Prashad, a professor of International Studies, to discuss how the poll's findings, and its questions, differ from others on the issue of race.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program, the stars of the new Christmas movie, "The Perfect Holiday," will be here: Queen Latifah, Gabrielle Union, Morris Chestnut and Faizon Love - with a live studio audience. We talk about everything from race in Hollywood to what they love about Christmas.

But first, some months ago, we reported on a column in a San Francisco newspaper that sparked some frank dialogue among prominent people in that city and across the country. The column by a little known young Asian-American writer was called "Why I Hate Blacks," and it listed all the negative attitudes that this young man had about African-Americans - attitudes that most blacks consider racist stereotypes.

Well, that caused a lot of dialogue and some tense debate among many folks in the media and across the country about just how many people really believe these things about other groups.

Now, there are some answers. A new poll, believed to be the first of its kind, surveys more than a thousand African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians about their views about each other. The poll, sponsored by New American Media, a consortium of ethic media outlets, found serious tensions and divisions among these groups and some significant stereotyping, as well as areas of mutual appreciation.

Joining me to talk about this survey and the findings are Sergio Bendixen, the pollster who conducted the survey for New American Media. We're pleased to have him here with me in the studio. And Vijay Prashad, he is a professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. SERGIO BENDIXEN (Pollster, New America Media): Thank you for having me.

Professor VIJAY PRASHAD (International Studies, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Mr. Bendixen, let's start with you. Clearly, a headline that jumped out at everybody who's read this says that these groups share some negative attitudes about one another. For example, 44 percent of Hispanics and 47 percent of Asians responded yes to the question, I am generally afraid of African-Americans because they are responsible for most of the crime. Another headline that jumped out to me is when people were asked if they would ever vote for an African-American for president, 37 percent of Asians said no. What do you make of this?

Mr. BENDIXEN: Well, there is definitely racial tension between African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans in the United States. I think that the poll clearly indicates that. But the poll basically has two tracks. It also points out the positives that exist within - in terms of public opinion within these three groups that gives us optimism about the future.

The three groups believe that they should put aside their differences and work together on issues that affect their community. The three groups believe that the U.S. would be a better country if there were more blacks, Latinos and Asians in positions of authority at universities, businesses, media and government. And the three groups also believe that racial tension between them will be better 10 years from now.

So, yes, there is - there are a lot of problems. And the one of the reasons that New America Media has sponsored this poll is that the people that run that organization feel that this is a problem that has been swept under the rug for too long, that a light needs to be shined on the problem. But the poll also uncovers a very positive track that is encouraging.

MARTIN: Mr. Prashad, do these poll findings strike you as new or consonant with other information that you have previously seen about the way these groups react to encounter each other?

Prof. PRASHAD: Well, you know, it's very, very useful to have any poll, because polls quantify and put forward in a stark way information that, you know, we've known for a long time through scholars who've done ethnographic research in Asian communities, in Latino communities, in black communities. Much of the actual content has been known, but the poll gives you the advantage of, you know, having something objective - larger numbers, et cetera.

MARTIN: You're not just relying on anecdotes or sort of an incident here or there. Right?

Prof. PRASHAD: Yes, and not on anecdotes. And so, you know, when you have numbers, you are able to produce and project to larger communities. There's an advantage to the poll, because it gives you that kind of sweep, but there are also, of course, disadvantages to polls.

MARTIN: Like what?

Prof. PRASHAD: Well, for instance, any poll is going to ask somebody a question about, you know, what do you think about crime, for instance, and the criminal? Now, you know, this question, it doesn't ask how are your opinions about criminality and crime? Where do they come from. Do you hold them in your heart? Or is this something you say because it's, you know, it's in the atmosphere, that one must say it because everybody says it and the media says it?

About 10, 12 years ago, Toni Morrison wrote a very fine essay called "On the Backs of Blacks," where she made the point that it's become almost a casual form of Americanization to imbibe anti-black racism, but this doesn't mean that people hold this dear into their soul.

MARTIN: An interesting question, Mr. Prashad, I want to pick up on that with Mr. Bendixen. How - there was some conversation among us when we were reviewing sort of the poll findings about whether some of the questions were leading, like the question about, do you think African-Americans are responsible for most of the crime? Is that a fair criticism? Perhaps some of these questions led people to certain conclusions?

Mr. BENDIXEN: Well, like the professor says, the poll is not the ultimate study on racial tension between these three groups. Polls are limited. You have to ask questions in a simple way, in a direct way. And yes, there might have been a small percentage that might have answered questions, either because they wanted to be politically correct, which would have said, no, I disagree, or people that might have felt, well, let me just agree because this is what I hear on the streets.

But the bottom line on this is that this problem has existed now for at least a couple of decades as Asian and Latin American immigrants have come into the United States in large numbers. And no one seems to want to discuss it. I -there was a debate in Des Moines, Iowa a couple of weeks ago, sponsored, basically, by PBS - two hours of questioning of presidential candidates, the brown and black forum. And not a single question during those two hours had to do with the racial tension among the black and Hispanic residents of this country. And that obviously isn't…

MARTIN: So when asking the question…

Mr. BENDIXEN: …the problem.

MARTIN: In asking the questions this way, you're trying to hit people where you think they really live. Is that your point?

Mr. BENDIXEN: Well, yes. And we came at this conclusion about the racial tension being a problem, not just from the answers to these questions that measure agreement on stereotypes, the negative stereotypes, but for many other questions. There were at least five sets of different questions that lead us to believe that racial tension is real and it's a problem that should be addressed, just like there are four or five different results that also lead us to believe that there's - we should be optimistic about the future if the leadership of this country takes on this problem and tries to minimize its dangers.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm talking about a new poll of Asians, Hispanics and African-Americans about their views of each other and about race relations in general. And joining me is Sergio Bendixen, who conducted the poll, and Vijay Prashad, who is a professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford.

I wanted to talk about a question you asked - provocative question about the concept of the American dream. It seems to mean very different things for blacks, Hispanics and Asians. Seventy-four percent of Hispanics said they believe in it. Sixty-four percent of Asians did. Only 44 percent of African-Americans, the only group coming in under 50 percent.

Mr. Bendixen, we were talking before we came on the air, and you said you were surprised by this. What do you think this means?

Mr. BENDIXEN: That was, to me, the most surprising answer, along with the answer about equal opportunity. Is the United States a country where everyone, whether African-American, Latino or Asian, has an equal opportunity to succeed? And the question about the criminal justice system. In all three questions, the Asians and the Latinos, the majority of which are immigrants, had more positive feelings about the belief in the American dream, about equal opportunity, about the justice system than African-Americans.

So these contrasting opinions about what America promises in contrast to what America delivers as a society is key to understanding the problems that exist among the three groups.

MARTIN: Why?

Mr. BENDIXEN: Because, first of all, there's a great correlation between African-Americans that do not believe in the American dream and do not believe in equal opportunity, and their negative feelings about the other two groups. Just from a point of view, it fits. But you can also…

MARTIN: Really. I can understand that you're saying that these groups believe these other - that African-Americans think these two other groups are getting ahead of them, or that they are benefiting from the American dream in a way they are not, or - I don't understand that.

Mr. BENDIXEN: I think that the, basically, what it comes down to - and there could be other interpretations, but how I see it is African-Americans still feel that this society does not give them the opportunities that it promises to everyone else, that there's still a lot of discrimination against - and a lot of unfairness. So they feel more uncomfortable about accepting newcomers, accepting others. If you're not happy in your own home, then it is very difficult to be kind to your neighbors.

MARTIN: Professor Prashad, there was also - the survey also showed a lot of isolation among these groups, many fewer sort of cross-cultural relationships than I think a lot of people would have believed. Did that surprise you?

Prof. PRASHAD: No, not at all. Some of this has to do with, again, the nature of the question. You know, if the question is about do you socialize only with people, you know, of your, as it were, ethnic group. That's the question that will lead people, particularly immigrants, to say yes. Some of this has to do with language. Some of it has to do with habits and things like that.

But, of course, people don't live in enclaves alone. They exist alongside others in the world, in the workplace, in the marketplace, you know, as they cross paths. So there are many ways in which people's lives intersect, and I think it's because of those intersections that then you get the answer saying in 10 years, things are going to be better.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. PRASHAD: And one very interesting thing, Michel, is that the people asked - of the people asked, 90 percent of the blacks asked are native born, half the Hispanics are immigrants, and four-fifths of the Asians are immigrants. So naturally, by my own analysis, those who have come to the United States recently will still carry water for the American dream. But those who have had a longer appreciation of, you know, the way race functions, you know, in that sense, have a truer understanding of their reality. And just to put this in one way, when you ask an immigrant, you know, do you experience racism? Nine out of 10 people that I talked to say no. Then if you ask them, are Americans rude? They'll say yes.

MARTIN: Okay.

Prof. PRASHAD: And the funny thing is, Michel, that I've met many, many - I know many Indian friends, for instance, who - they garner a second name. So, I'll be Vijay, and in quotes, I'll put the name Victor Prashad.

MARTIN: Oh, I see. Well, forgive me for being rude to you - I hope I'm not -but we're out of time. We have to leave it there. A very rich conversation. I hope we'll return to it - a lot of interesting things to talk about here.

Sergio Bendixen and Vijay Prashad. We've been talking about deep divisions, shared destiny - a national survey of African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans on how they view each other and race relations in general.

Sergio Bendixen conducted the poll. Vijay Prashad is a professor at Trinity College. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BENDIXEN: Thank you, Michel.

Prof. PRASHAD: All right.

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