OCTOBER 25, 1995
Dramatic differences in the way Americans reacted to the O.J. Simpson verdict, prompted Charlayne Hunter-Gault to talk with a number of citizens in a national conversation about the state of race relations. She spoke first with pollster Daniel Yankelovich, president of Public Agenda, a non-partisan policy research organization.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Dan Yankelovich, thank you for joining us. Recently, in the wake of the O.J. trial and the Million Man March, there's been a lot of pain about race and calls for conversations and dialogue. Do you think it's a good time for that?
DANIEL YANKELOVICH, Pollster: Oh, yes, I do. I do. I think any time is a good time for it. I think one of our biggest problems has been not talking to each other. You would think from the way--the bitterness of attitudes today, that things have gotten worse and worse and worse subjectively. But that's not the case. Actually, it's a very complicated situation, because very large numbers of blacks over the last few decades have moved into the middle class, have prospered, and done well. The problem is at the other end of the spectrum. Large numbers have become poorer and worse off, so it's a complicated situation. It has to be understood. It's just not the case that there has been no progress, but it's not politically correct to talk to each other. Blacks and whites don't talk to each other. They talk among themselves. They don't talk to each other. And in that atmosphere, a poisonous kind of festering takes place.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But we've had racial eruptions in the past, calls for conversation, dialogue, commission studies after Rodney King, after the '68 riots, ten years after that. How come we haven't had this conversation? Do we try it and it fails, or we don't do it the right way, or--
DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Well, we don't try it. I mean, we don't try it in recent decades because of this nonsense about political correctness. If a white speaks out and he's accused of racism, or at least is fearful of being accused of being a racist, which is interesting if that's enough to stop people, that, itself, says something.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: For the sake of argument, let's say the person is a racist or has racist thoughts. I mean, should that person speak out anyway and that be discussed, I mean, because so much racism, blacks argue, is unconscious, and you don't know it till you speak out and have it confronted.
DANIEL YANKELOVICH: I think that the conversation has to be controlled, it has to be dialogue. If people are spewing hatred and racist prejudice, that doesn't help anything. That exacerbates the situation. But people of goodwill, maybe even not such goodwill, for starters, who get together in some organized and systematic way and talk about some of the common problems and issues that, that affect both them and the society as a whole.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: In his recent speech on race, the President said that black and white Americans view the same place, the same things in vastly different ways. What accounts for that, if you agree?
DANIEL YANKELOVICH: I think that that may be a misleading statement. It's true that blacks and whites do see the world in different ways, which obscures the fact that they have so many values in common, so many beliefs in common, so that when the President says that, it seems to indicate a situation in common, where we have most everything in common, but the different experience of blacks and whites in our society has led to different perceptions and attitudes, and obscures the common ground.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is there any specific you can give me there?
DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Well, one that stays in my mind is we did a number of focus groups a number of years ago, a few years ago, and we were talking about affirmative action. And the vast majority of whites are against affirmative action. And the vast majority of blacks support affirmative action. So if you look at it superficially from poll data, you'd get the impression of irreconcilable differences. But when you ask why, when you probe beneath the surface, the whites were opposed to it because they felt that with affirmative action, a less qualified black would get the job. And the blacks were for it, because they figured without affirmative action, a less qualified white would get the job. Well, what was interesting is both of them shared the view that the best qualified person should get the job. It shifts the question. The question is, therefore, no longer one of quotas, but it's one of what do you mean by best qualified, how do you get to being best qualified, how can you agree on that, and that's an easier question to deal with. But that's not the question we deal with. We deal with the wrong question because of these assumptions that people hold that obscures their common values.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So what kind of conversation do you think we should be having, and should it be a conversation between blacks and whites, or all minority groups?
DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Well, I think that the black-white conversation is the most important one. And to me, when you take affirmative action as in California, and you stretch it as a tent to cover everybody, it has lost its meaning. The original impetus for affirmative action was to make up for an historic wrong. Well, that historic--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You mean slavery and--
DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Yes. Yes. That's right, and the legal discrimination, not the problems of Asians coming to this country who don't immediately speak the language but have all kinds of support systems and advantages. So I think the "who" should be blacks and whites.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Some argue that we shouldn't be having a conversation now about race because we don't know enough to talk about, we don't know enough of a history of how we all got to where we are, and that unless we do, we can't have an informed, productive conversation.
DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Well, I am not sure that the history alone is going to make people more tolerant, because I think that it is the present situation and existing aggravations that are stirring things up.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Like welfare?
DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Like welfare. And like the job situation, and like the educational situation, and crime and violence, and the, and the judicial system, the criminal justice system. It malfunctions so badly that it's contributing to this tension. It seems to me one of the things that the media can do, because people can't have these spontaneous conversations by themselves, that shows like yours can help stage some of these conversations, and set the stage by giving some of the background and some of the facts so that people have a frame within which to begin to ventilate these feelings, or you could just--this--in the focus groups that I and my firm do, we find that people start out at the beginning of two hours, holding one attitude, and by the end of the two hours, they hold very different attitudes, because they've listened to each other, they've learned a few facts, and they've had a chance to ventilate first and then deliberate on some of these issues.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What do you think of the proposal to have a national commission appointed on race to look into these conflicts and troubles?
DANIEL YANKELOVICH: My guess is the--if there were to be a commission, for it to be successful, it ought to have a very narrow focus. I think its focus ought to be economic. I think that we have--we're entering a world economy which we don't understand, which has resulted in the majority of Americans being on a treadmill, suffering downward mobility. And how you generate jobs and how you make sure that growth does result in the rising tide that Jack Kennedy referred to.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: That--
DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Yes, and John Chester Yachts, but all the boats, which is not true anymore. I don't think commissions are very good at dealing with the psychological and sociological aspects of racism. I think that real dialogue among people of goodwill and good faith, there is much more goodwill and good faith, much less racism in the society than there used to be, and the fact that, in fact, we feel that there's more and are reacting to it is an anomaly of our history. It says that there are irritants and scapegoatism that is exaggerating and distorting and turning us away from the real progress that's been made.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And you don't think that's just human nature?
DANIEL YANKELOVICH: No. I've been studying public opinion for 40 years, and I've seen an enormous change in that 40 years in the area of prejudice and racism. They--whether it's anti-Jewish feelings or anti-Catholic feelings, or anti-black feelings, the outlook of the country has become much more accepting and positive and pluralistic, so the fact that we have this terrible state of mind today is not--is sort of almost--gives the lie to that. And I think it's remedial. I think we can do something about it. And I don't think that doing something about it is all that terribly complicated. At least, it starts with talking and it ends with jobs and education.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Dan Yankelovich, thank you.