Black Perceptions of Discrimination

Prior to the passage of civil rights legislation, blacks perceived the United States to be a highly prejudiced and discriminatory society. In 1963, more than three-quarters of a nationally representative sample of black Americans perceived significant racial discrimination in U.S. job markets (Schuman et al., 1997). Asked whether they had as good a chance as whites to get jobs for which they were qualified, a resounding 77 percent said “no.” In the following years, the percentage of black respondents perceiving employment discrimination fell, reaching 64 percent in 1978 and 55 percent in 1989. As late as 1997, more than half (53 percent) of all African Americans said that blacks still did not have as good a chance as whites to get jobs for which they were equally qualified. Moreover, in 1996, 63 percent of African Americans nationwide continued to view discrimination as a primary cause of disadvantage among blacks (Schuman et al., 1997).

Between 1997 and 2001, the Gallup Organization and Princeton Survey Research Associates public opinion polls asked nationally representative samples of African Americans to report any discrimination or unfair treatment they had experienced within the past 30 days (Smith, 2001). On average, 26 percent of respondents said they had experienced discriminatory treatment while shopping, 16 percent at the workplace, and 16 percent while on public transportation. A national survey of African Americans sponsored by the Washington Post during 2000 found that 30 percent had at least sometimes been “called names or insulted” and 17 percent had been “physically threatened or attacked” because of their race. Rates for non-blacks were substantially lower, with only 18 percent of the general population reporting a racial or ethnic insult and 11 percent a physical threat or attack. Clearly, African Americans, more than other Americans, still perceive significant discrimination in public life and view it as a significant barrier to their social and economic advancement.

In the Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality, each respondent was asked: “In general, how much discrimination is there that hurts the chances of blacks to get good-paying jobs?” In Atlanta, 60 percent of black respondents answered “a lot,” compared with 57 percent in Boston, 62 percent in Detroit, and 69 percent in Los Angeles. When respondents who answered “some” to the same question were added, the percentage of African Americans who perceived racial discrimination in job markets rose to well over 90 percent in each metropolitan area (Kluegel and Bobo, 2001). Of course, the implicit definition of discrimination used by respondents may not be the same as the legal definition currently recognized by U.S. courts.

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