On August 28, a monument to civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. will be unveiled in our nation’s capital, but two new polls suggest that White Americans still see the African American experience through a privileged lens.

Cross-Racial Consensus/Discord

With the African American unemployment rate twice what it is for Whites and the wealth gap wider than ever, Colorlines publisher, the Applied Research Center (ARC), conducted a nationwide poll of 2,400 adults to get a sense of whose fault people think this is. What ARC found is that “there’s cross-racial consensus that hard work generally leads to success in this country and that lack of success doesn’t mean an individual didn’t work hard,” but “very different explanations for the most glaring failure of our entire society—the persistent racial disparities in achievement and well-being.”

When asked if they agree or disagree with the statement: “In the United States, people who work hard generally succeed in life,” overwhelming majorities of Americans agreed.

When asked to respond to the statement: “In the United States, people who have not succeeded in life generally failed to work hard enough and/or failed to take advantage of opportunities to better themselves,” 34 percent to 43 percent of Americans agreed, depending on their race/ethnicity, but in no group did a majority agree.

When asked about three potential factors in the achievement gap: individual initiative, race and class, respondents’ opinions varied across racial groups. Twenty-four percent of Whites said individual initiative is the only factor, while no more than 13 percent of other groups agreed with this statement. Conservative political ideology was “the most reliable predictor” of who would attribute the achievement gap to individual initiative alone. Whites were also the only group for whom a majority disagreed that racism is a factor in the achievement gap. Only 37 percent of Whites said racism is a contributor.

“The data show that even controlling for other factors, clearly African Americans are more likely to see race as part of the explanation. That means that while White liberals were certainly more likely than White conservatives to believe racial disparities were caused by race-based discrimination or lack of resources, they were less likely to believe so when compared to Black liberals,” Colorlines reported.

Class was “the only one of the three factors suggested for driving disparities that garnered majorities of all four racial and ethnic groups—Whites, Latinos, Blacks and Asian Americans,” the article said.

Finally, among respondents aged 18-25, only about 65 percent are as likely as older Americans to see individual initiative as the sole reason for success. “Like Blacks and Latinos, they are also more likely to select more than just one type of explanation. Nuance is not our enemy, and with proactive efforts, it can be our collective future consensus,” Colorlines concluded.

Adding to the Consensus/Discord

Meanwhile, a nationwide USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of more than 1,300 people that was conducted in advance of the King monument dedication found that approximately nine out of 10 Americans say civil rights for African Americans have improved in their lifetimes, but when it comes to hiring, Whites see “a level playing field” while a majority of Blacks say discrimination persists.

My Take

These conflicting views remind me of something a White leader who worships and serves in a majority Black context said to me earlier this year. He said he is and probably always will be a recovering racist because, by virtue of being White, his is a privileged point of view.

In 12-step programs, the first step toward recovery is admitting we have a problem. These poll results indicate that we do. White Americans do not clearly see the suffering that discrimination inflicts upon people of color and appear to hold these neighbors to a higher standard than they do themselves.

I’m also reminded of the Apostle Paul who lamented his own inability to overcome sin. “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing,” Paul says in Romans 7:19. “Who will rescue me?” he asks. Jesus Christ, of course, is the answer. I pray that rather than discourage us, polls like these correct our vision and lead to repentance.

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