TOLERANCE of ethnicity seems to be rising and anti-Semitism dropping, according to a study of polls conducted over several years by seven national polling organizations in which people were asked to describe or rank different ethnic groups. The study was made public yesterday.
The new analysis of existing polling data, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, provides intriguing glimpses of the images, social standing and conflicts that different ethnic groups are generally perceived to have.
One section of the report is based on a poll in which respondents were asked to rank the social standing of 58 ethnic groups.
European groups generally monopolized the top of the ladder, and within the European groups their perceived status mostly followed the order of immigration, with those groups that arrived in this country first, like the British and Protestants, assigned the highest standing.
The Germans, Irish and Scandinavians, who immigrated in the mid-19th century, came next, followed by Italians, Greeks, Poles, Russians and Jews, who came to America later.
Most people assigned the bottom rungs of the ladder to non-Europeans, including a fictitious ethnic group, "Wisians."
"We were trying to see if people were being too compliant with us, and the good news is that 61 percent didn't rank the Wisians," said Tom W. Smith, author of the American Jewish Committee report and director of the General Social Survey, the largest and longest-term project supported by the National Science Foundation's sociology program. "My explanation for the low ranking is that people probably thought that if they were foreign-sounding, and they'd never heard of them, they couldn't be doing too well."
The ratings of almost every group drifted up slightly from 1964 to 1989, the American Jewish Committee analysis found, but the groups whose social standings were perceived to have improved most significantly were the Japanese, Chinese and blacks.
Despite the improvement, blacks, who were identified as Negroes in the 1989 poll so the wording would be comparable to that of the 1964 survey, were still perceived as having low social standing, akin to American Indians and Mexicans. In 1989, the Japanese were thought to rank about the same as French Canadians and Jews, while the Chinese stood between Spanish Americans and Hungarians.
The study found that anti-Jewish attitudes are at historic lows, by most indicators. Jews were even perceived in the 1990 General Social Survey, an in-person poll of 1,372 representative adults nationwide, as leading whites in general, Southern whites, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans and blacks in terms of who was regarded as harder working, richer, less prone to violence, more self-supporting and more intelligent.
The only characteristic on which Jews were not top-rated was patriotism, on which whites and Southern whites were perceived more favorably, followed by Jews and blacks, and then Asian and Hispanic Americans.
The study also analyzed data from several polls about which groups were thought to have too much power in the United States.
In The 1990 General Social Survey, 25 percent of the respondents said whites had too much power, as against 21 percent who said Jews had too much power. Among the other groups, 14 percent thought blacks had too much power, 6 percent said Asian Americans did and 5 percent said Hispanic Americans did.
Conversely, when asked which groups should have more power, 47 percent said blacks, 46 percent said Hispanic Americans, 37 percent said Asian Americans, 15 percent said Southern whites, 13 percent said Jews and 6 percent said whites.
One source of possible concern about anti-Semitism, the study found, was that those who thought Jews were richer than whites in general were almost twice as likely to say that Jews had too much influence as those who thought the two groups were equally wealthy.
And while the images of Jews as rich, smart and hard-working were generally positive, Smith said those very images might someday lead to renewed anti-Semitism.
"While these evaluations are positive on their face, they identify Jews as a possible target of envy and resentment," the study said.
Still, the American Jewish Committee said the report should come as a relief to American Jews who fear a possible increase in anti-Semitism.
"With the recent events involving David Duke, Crown Heights and Leonard Jeffries, the anxiety level of American Jews has risen," said David Singer, director of information at the American Jewish Committee. "This study is an important grounding in reality."
Perceptions of tension between different ethnic groups were measured in a May 1990 telephone poll of 3,004 representative adults, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates.
"The major conflict that was perceived was the black-white conflict," Smith said. "Others, like tensions between blacks and Jews, or Hispanics or Asians, just didn't come anywhere near that level."
Indeed, 56 percent of those polled said blacks disliked whites, and 53 percent said whites did not like blacks. Only 10 percent said blacks were disliked by Asians Americans and 11 percent said blacks were disliked by Jews.