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The Biggest Gulf In American Life


This is the fourth interview in the Black History Month series "Perspectives on Black Politics in the Age of Obama." It has been selectively edited for print, but the full audio will be available at The other interviews can be found at

Michael C. Dawson is the John D. MacArthur distinguished service professor of political science and the College at the University of Chicago, as well as the founding and current director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at the university. In collaboration with a number of colleagues, Dawson has directed or co-directed a series of survey studies from 2000-2005, 2008, 2009 and 2010 that have probed racial attitudes in the United States.
His newest book is "Not In Our Lifetimes: The Future of Black Politics." His previous two books, "Behind the Mule: Race and Class in African-American Politics" (Princeton 1994) and "Black Visions: The Roots of Contemporary African-American Political Ideologies" (Chicago 2001), won multiple awards, including "Black Visions" winning the prestigious Ralph Bunche Award from the American Political Science Association. Forthcoming are several books including "Blacks In and Out of the Left: Past, Present and Future," and "Reflections On Black Politics in the Early 21st Century."
Rakim Brooks: I've just completed "Not in Our Lifetimes," and what is most striking, and left me feeling a little marginalized, is how out of touch I was with mainstream white American opinion, and how out of touch white Americans seem to be with mainstream black American views. Could you talk about this facet of American public opinion?
Michael Dawson: I continually am amazed by how wide that gulf is. Whether we're talking about what the role of the government is, what you think of the United Nations, political leaders - Ronald Reagan, Jesse Jackson, Bill Clinton, President Obama - or how to respond to [Hurricane] Katrina and whether it had anything to do with race, across a wide variety of issues we see differences between mainstream black and white American opinion that dwarfs anything in American public opinion, period. Democrat versus Republican, men versus women, conservative versus liberal, the black/white divide is the biggest, one of the biggest in the world, and certainly the largest gap in the United States.
RB: Why is that the case? In your book, you refer to Jurgen Habermas' conception of different "life worlds," but it seems to be so much more than that. You talk about political and historical amnesia among Americans, but why is it that the majority of white Americans can't see that Katrina had everything to do with race and the institutional manifestations of race; why did only 38 percent of whites, as compared with 90 percent of blacks, agree that the disaster showed that racial inequality remains a problem?
MD: When I wrote these numbers into statistical equations, class disappears, region disappears, age and gender disappear, and the only thing that remains statistically significant is race. Controlling for all the things that sociologists, economists, and political scientists say you should control for, we find that what drives one's views [most significantly] is race.
And to answer your first question, "what's behind this is?," we are starting with views of the world that are fundamentally different. A large majority of white people thought, as early as 2000, that black people had already achieved racial equality and in the same poll 80 percent of black people were saying not in my lifetime or maybe never in the United States. Go back to a survey that many of us conducted in the mid-1990s and you get the majority of whites saying several things that are of interest, one of which is that black people had caught up in housing, healthcare, health outcomes, and unemployment, all areas where when you look at statistics black people are really lagging.
In another survey that [Harvard sociologist] Larry Bobo ran, white people were saying, in smaller majorities but still the majority, that black people were intellectually inferior and a larger majority saying that black people were prone to crime and welfare. So on the one hand you have the view that black people had caught up or are doing better than white people overall (in fact, in another survey recorded over the last few months, many whites think they are the most discriminated against) and [on the other hand] there is the feeling that black people are whining [and are actually criminal and dependent on state handouts]. All this while black people are saying that "we're behind, that we have a lot of catching up to do, that this society still sorts by race." You couldn't have two more firmly different ways of viewing the world.