Young see race divide, but give reason to hope

Survey shows support for diversity, ambivalence on achieving integration

August 17, 1999|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Most young Americans are comfortable socializing with people of different races, but many are comfortable with racial groups being separate if everyone has equal opportunities, according to results of a national survey on the attitudes of young blacks and whites released yesterday.

More than 72 percent of those who responded to the survey -- conducted by Zogby International for Hamilton College in New York -- said it was likely they would date someone of a different race.

On average, the group of 18- to 29-year-olds who were polled felt campus diversity was as important to the quality of a college as high test scores and grades in college admissions.

But they expressed ambivalence on how to achieve racial integration. Asked whether the federal government is responsible for improving the social and economic position of blacks, and whether colleges should take steps to ensure racial diversity among students, those polled were evenly split.

Most felt achieving racial equality was the responsibility of individuals, not the government. (On a scale of one to seven, with seven indicating individuals are responsible for racial equality and one indicating the government is responsible, the average score was 5.3.)

"There are signs that the wall of social barriers may finally be breaking down," John Zogby of New York-based Zogby International said at a news conference here yesterday. "But there is sobering news. The majority describe race relations as `fair' or `poor.' Race still does matter in the social lives of young people."

The national survey, conducted by telephone, polled 1,001 randomly selected blacks and whites last spring; 109 blacks and 892 whites were polled. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.2 percent for the total group and plus or minus 9 percent for blacks.

Although the survey asked a few questions about "racial minorities" and women, most questions related to black-white relations because "that is the most troubling racial divide in the country, and it serves as a template for other groups," said Phil Klinkner, who teaches about racial issues at Hamilton College and who, with 10 undergraduate students, designed the survey.

Zogby said the results, though sometimes disturbing, indicated much to be hopeful about. He said past studies on racial attitudes have shown most people did not live or socialize with people of other races. That is not so with most of today's young adults.

Even as they increasingly mix with people of different races, more than 50 percent agree it is acceptable for racial groups to be "basically separate from one another as long as everyone has equal opportunities."

Jannett Matthews, a senior at Hamilton College who helped craft the study, said the results may show some of the pitfalls of polling youth who may have only a cursory understanding of segregation.

"In my age range, they don't really know what separate but equal is," she said. "They are not quite clear about how much struggle we've gone through to get where we are."

Across age and racial groups, the young adults surveyed seemed to indicate they were confident in their sense of racial fairness -- but they were pessimistic about race relations in society as a whole:

More than half said it was unlikely the United States would elect a black president in the near future.

Nearly 60 percent said if an equally qualified black and white person applied for a job, the white person would be hired.

More than 77 percent rated race relations as fair or poor.

Respondents ages 24 to 29 were more pessimistic on the general state of race in America than younger adults. The older adults surveyed were more likely to say race relations are staying the same or getting worse.

But Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People who attended the news conference, said the results generally indicate optimism.

"These are the future judges of the world," he said. "There is some hope and some promise."

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