New Survey Discerns Deep Divisions Among U.S. Youths on Race Relations

By Peter Schmidt — March 25, 1992 3 min read

WASHINGTON--The nation’s youths share friendships and values that transcend racial lines, but they remain deeply wary of other races and feel their own group is most affected by discrimination, a study released here last week suggests.

The study, commissioned by People for the American Way, is based on a nationwide telephone survey of 1,170 youths between the ages of 15 and 24, as well as in-depth interviews and studies of focus groups involving youths in that age range. It was conducted last fall by Peter D. Hart Research Associates.

Arthur J. Kropp, the president of People for the American Way, a liberal lobbying group that focuses on civil-liberties issues, said the findings “should send a chilling message to all Americans: Ours is a nation divided.’'

“Our young people,’' Mr. Kropp said, “have placed themselves in opposing camps, divided by race, and they tend to believe only the worst about youth of other races.’'

But Karlyn H. Keene, a fellow at a the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, pointed to several positive findings, including ones showing that youths of all racial and ethnic groups share certain core values, and that three-fifths of black youths surveyed do not feel they have been victims of discrimination.

While 50 percent of the youths surveyed described the state of race relations in America as “generally bad,’' 55 percent also said that they believed such relations are getting better. The respondents, for the most part, felt their attitudes toward race relations are healthier than those of their parents.

And at least 90 percent of the youths in every demographic subgroup, including 96 percent of low-income whites and low-income blacks, agreed that race relations would improve if people took more responsibility for themselves rather than blaming others for their problems.

Uneasy With Other Groups

Both blacks and whites were described by 55 percent of the respondents as uneasy rather than comfortable in dealing with members of the other racial group.

Fifty-six percent of whites said white people would not be safe in most black neighborhoods, regardless of the neighborhoods’ socioeconomic status, and 4 in 10 black respondents said members of their race would not be safe in most white neighborhoods.

Eighty-two percent of all respondents, including 81 percent of young whites, agreed with the proposition that “racial and ethnic minorities still face a lot of discrimination,’' and only 45 percent said the nation is doing very well or fairly well in ensuring the fair treatment of minorities.

But when it came to issues related to their own economic self-interests, there was a large gap in perceptions between white and minority youths.

Most whites, Hispanics, and blacks, for example, felt that their respective groups were the most likely to be denied economic opportunity because of discrimination.

When asked their opinion of various approaches to dealing with racial problems in society, blacks and Hispanics were more inclined than whites to favor school integration, multicultural education, minority scholarships, affirmative action, and punishment for students who use racial slurs. White youths, on the other hand, were more likely than minorities to favor making it harder for people to stay on welfare.

Values and Friendships

Despite such differences, a consensus appears to exist among young people of all races on core values such as family, personal responsibility, and fairness, according to the study. All groups believe the three most important factors for success in life are education, hard work, and a fair chance.

The young people surveyed also appeared more likely than the generation before them to socialize with members of other races: 8 in 10 said they frequently came into contact with members of other ethnic and racial groups, often when they could have chosen not to.

Overwhelming majorities, especially among minorities, approved of interracial dating and said they would feel comfortable working for, visiting the home of, and being roommates with someone of a race other than their own.

More than 70 percent of respondents said they have a “close personal friendship’’ with a person of another race.

Many, however, appeared to believe that their friends from other racial and ethnic groups were exceptional, rather than representative, and appeared unable to translate their own positive experiences into positive attitudes toward those groups as a whole, the study said.

Aside from parents, the greatest influences on racial attitudes cited by the youths were personal experiences and then friends, with teachers, newspapers, and television trailing far behind.

A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 1992 edition of Education Week as New Survey Discerns Deep Divisions Among U.S. Youths on Race Relations