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While White Americans Feel ‘Ceiling Effect,’ Blacks and Latinos Find Aspiration

August 2, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
A new study shows that since 2006 whites have grown more pessimistic about their economic outlook while African-Americans and Latinos have grown more optimistic. Ray Suarez talks with Matt Barreto of Latino Decisions and Ellis Cose, author of "The End of Anger" to examine the differences and shift in attitudes.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn now to a new portrait of how Americans view themselves and their economic futures.

Ray Suarez has our look.

RAY SUAREZ: For decades, white, Hispanic and black Americans have felt similarly optimistic about their chances of improving their lives and economic prospects. But a study out this week shows that, since about 2006, whites have become more pessimistic. At the same time, blacks and Hispanics have grown more optimistic.

Now we ask why.

Joining me are Matt Barreto, a political science professor at the University of Washington and co-founder of the opinion research group Latino Decisions, and Ellis Cose, the author of “The End of Anger: A New Generation’s Take on Race and Rage.”

Professor Barreto, by so many measures, white families are doing better. You know, simply taken in the aggregate, the socioeconomic measurements are just better. Why so much pessimism?

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MATT BARRETO, University of Washington: Well, I think it reflects what we call a ceiling effect, and that is that whites have been doing better for a very long time.

You can go back to the post-World War II era, when whites really started moving into the suburbs and the upper middle class, and so they have occupied that top rung of doing better for a very long time. And now as they start to evaluate their position, I think a lot of white Americans are saying we don’t see ourselves growing anymore. We have been at this top rung and we’re not growing.

And instead we see other groups are also growing. And that leads to a little bit more pessimism in their own reflection of their group, that perhaps they have already achieved the highest rung that they’re going to achieve.

RAY SUAREZ: Ellis Cose, conversely, black and brown Americans are more likely to be unemployed, less likely to have a college credential, by a lot of socioeconomic metrics, just doing worse. How do you explain the optimism?

ELLIS COSE, author: Easy.

I was speaking when I was doing research to a guy named Dave Thomas, who is a business school professor at Harvard, and he used the phrase “irrational exuberance” to explain what we were then picking up in the polls, because this poll finding is not new. It goes back several years.

And in essence part of it that what African-Americans are looking at and Latinos as well is aspirational. They’re looking at the future. We have gone, as Matt basically said, from being a country that was basically and totally dominated by whites to something very different now.

And so for the first time you have African-Americans who are saying it’s possible to break through some of these ceilings that it was impossible to break through a generation ago. And when you’re talking about the future, the fact that unemployment for African-Americans has been roughly twice what it is for white Americans pretty much forever, that doesn’t affect how you see the prospects for your child, because you say my child might be able to become a CEO of a corporation. My child may be able to become a big talk show host. My child may be able to become president of the United States.

That’s something you couldn’t say a generation ago, and that’s revolutionary.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, it’s not a 4 percent, 5 percent, 6 percent difference. It’s a huge bulge, 25 percent, 28 percent. Does that number, that big number demand to be looked at more closely? You’re a guy who works with statistics and samples and polls all the time.

MATT BARRETO: Yes, Ray, I think absolutely this is something that people should be paying attention to.

And, as we just heard, this is something that those of us in the research community have been documenting for a number of years, that decline in white optimism and openness, which I think ultimately is also tied to the rise of the tea party in 2009 and 2010, and at the same time what you have had is you have had an increase in that aspirational opportunities for blacks and Hispanics.

You have seen a black president-elected. You have seen a Latina appointed to the United States Supreme Court. You have seen all sorts of discussion of the black and the Latino vote after the 2012 election, and that makes minority communities feel a bit more empowered and optimistic.

At the same time, we have seen a steady decline over the last few years of white Americans in terms of how they view their future in relationship, not just to themselves, but in relationship to this growing minority community in the United States, which is flexing its muscle. And I think that does need to be discussed.

RAY SUAREZ: Families of all races experienced terrible losses during the worst of the recession, but Ellis Cose, the losses among black and brown families were brutal. Doesn’t the view of today color how you see the future?

ELLIS COSE: Well, if you look at people and you ask the question about how their own economic situation is, blacks are no more likely than whites to say that it’s good. In fact, they’re less likely.

But if you ask the question is the country on the right path, if you ask the question are my children going to do better, if you ask the question, people like me and my family, are we going to do well, then you have a different story. And I would say a lot of that is about the future.

And also part of what you’re picking up is something generational. My book looked quite closely at the difference in different generations. And the younger generation, the under-40, under-30 generation, sees a different America than the over-40, over-50 generation sees.

And that’s being picked up in the polls as well. They see an America that’s more open, that — where success is more possible. So even if people are struggling now — and they are — and African-Americans if you look objectively have a bigger chance of falling out of the middle class now than white Americans do — so it’s brutal.

But in terms of what’s possible for their children and what’s possible in the future, you get these responses where people say, you know, things aren’t possibly that just weren’t possible before. And that sort of trumps the particular situation many find themselves right in at this moment.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Professor, quickly, before we go, what numbers will you be looking at in the near future to see how these questions will track over time? What will be significant?

MATT BARRETO: Well, I think we not only want to look at how each individual group evaluates their own opportunities, but I think we should be looking at the cross-pressures here. We should be looking at how groups are more willing to work together and to address what you called the facts on the ground, the fact that blacks and Latinos still do lag behind whites.

Despite the fact that they’re more optimistic today, they’re lagging behind. And we want to see all groups working together to make sure we can improve the economy and the situation for all Americans.

RAY SUAREZ: Matt Barreto, Ellis Cose, gentlemen, thank you both.

ELLIS COSE: Thank you.