Race, Class and Public Opinion: How America Fails to Tell the Whole Story

Race, Class and Public Opinion: How America Fails to Tell the Whole Story
By Rachel Iafolla ‘18

The American Dream. We preach and even rave about the land of opportunity and equality we have created. Under such assumptions, we tend to think that those of the same social class experience similar hardships and thus express similar views as though they were a homogenous group.

Police Brutality. Cases of racially charged brutality against black citizens have dominated the media over the past few years. The names Michael Brown and Sandra Bland have come to represent how we perceive racial injustice. Young blacks have been killed in startling numbers by the police while white men who shoot up black churches live to tell the tale.

But are these two topics connected? One way this can happen is when the statistical over-simplification of public opinion muffles the voices of those who have experiences different than the mainstream. While looking for commonalities is not always a bad thing, exploring variance in public opinion on the criminal justice system sheds light on how that data can get skewed in distorting ways. More specifically, by breaking down public opinion on the criminal justice system just by social class and comparing these trends to opinions modified by social class and race, we can see that how we choose to define public opinion can provide us with drastically different stories about contemporary America.

Only controlled for social class, data from the General Social Survey 1972-2014 (GSS) shows that in 2014, a solid majority of middle class people (59%) believe that the U.S should spend more to halt crime levels that they believe are rising. Not surprisingly, this number is very similar to the views of those whites who compose by far the largest proportion of the middle class; 57% of them believe we should spend more. However, a startling 81% of the black middle class believes we need to be spending more. This 22 percentage point difference between the white and black middle classes would be missed by only looking at class differences in America and makes it clear why we shouldn’t be surprised by the variation in black and white responses to criminal justice issues that we often encounter in our communities and interactions.

There is even a more marked divergence when it comes to public opinion on police behavior. When asked if there was a situation where they thought it would be OK for a police officer to hit an adult male, 72% of the middle class as a whole said yes. Nevertheless, whereas 79% of white middle class citizens held this view, only 38% of middle class blacks did — or less than half as many.

The above data shows how easy it is for some ways of measuring public opinion to leave out certain subgroups of the population. Thus when politicians and policy makers make blanket statements such as “middle class America” and claims about “the 99%”, their perhaps laudable intention to create a sense of national unity seldom tells the whole story, and may be quite misleading as well. Arguably, blacks experience the most interaction with the criminal justice system in the U.S and probably have the most nuanced views. Clumping black voices in with the rest of the society on issues that are often particularly salient for black Americans lessens their power and stifles their voices.

Moreover, our belief that access to similar resources and standards of living is enough to put everyone on a similar playing field is not supported by this data. Even when placed on the “same” playing field blacks and whites hold differing opinions. It appears that race is a decisive factor when it comes to opinions on the criminal justice system and its practices, and suggests that making it to the middle class in the present does not necessarily make up for the inequalities of the past. What this data from the General Social Survey demonstrates is that when it comes to certain areas of public opinion racial identity trumps socioeconomic standing.