Defining the American Dream

the UNITED States of America?

Posted on Friday, September 10, 2010

What Divides America?
Immigration and Income -- Not Race -- Are Seen as Primary Sources of Social Conflict
by Rich Morin, Pew Research Center
It may surprise anyone following the charges of racism that have flared up during the debate over President Obama's health care proposals, but a survey taken this summer found that fewer people perceived there are strong conflicts between blacks and whites than saw strong conflicts between immigrants and the native born, or between rich people and poor people.

A majority (55%) of adults said there are "very strong" or "strong" conflicts between immigrants and people born in the United States. Nearly as many -- 47% -- said the same about conflicts between rich people and poor people, according to a nationally representative survey by the Pew Research Center Social & Demographic Trends project.

The survey found that about four-in-ten (39%) believe there are serious conflicts between blacks and whites, and only a quarter (26%) see major generational divisions between the young and old.

The findings come at a time when discussions about the role of racism in American society has featured heavily in media coverage of Obama's presidency -- triggered first by the arrest in July of a prominent African-American Harvard professor in his own home, and more recently by the assertion by former President Jimmy Carter that much of the opposition to Obama's policies is racially motivated. The Pew Research survey was conducted from July 20 to Aug. 2, shortly after the Harvard incident but before President Carter's recent comments.

Different Groups See Different Levels of Conflict
The survey found some notable demographic patterns in the public's perceptions of social conflicts. For example, blacks, Hispanics and women are significantly more likely than whites and men to say major conflicts exist between groups in at least three of the four areas tested in the survey. Blacks, in particular, consistently see more social conflict than do other demographic groups. But not even blacks believe that racial conflict is the most prevalent kind of conflict in the country today. A bare majority of blacks (53%) say there are "very strong/strong" conflicts between blacks and whites. At the same time, nearly two-thirds of blacks (65%) say there are significant conflicts between the rich and poor, and 61% say there are significant conflicts between immigrants and the native born. Blacks also are twice as likely as whites to see major generational conflicts (42% vs. 21%).

The pattern is mixed among other groups. Older adults are significantly less likely than younger people to see strong conflicts between immigrants and native born and between the rich and the poor, but just as likely to see serious generational differences and racial disputes.

Similarly, half of all Democrats (46%) but a only third of Republicans (33%) say there are serious conflicts between blacks and whites. The partisan perceptions gap is even bigger on perceptions of conflicts between the rich and poor: a 55% majority of Democrats see very serious or serious conflicts between haves- and have-nots, compared with 38% of Republicans. At the same time, there is no significant difference by party affiliation in perceptions about conflicts between immigrants and native born or between the generations.

Social Conflict in American Life
To measure perceptions of social conflict, a total of 1,815 persons age 16 and older were interviewed July 20-Aug. 2, 2009. Respondents were asked in separate questions "In all countries, there are differences or conflicts between different social groups. In your opinion, in America, how much conflict is there between..." blacks and whites, the poor and the rich, young people and older people, and immigrants and people born in the United States. Respondents were then given these answer options: "very strong conflicts, strong conflicts, not very strong conflicts, there are not conflicts" for each domain.

Disagreements between immigrants and native-born Americans emerge as the most prevalent and serious type of social conflict among those tested in the survey. A clear majority (55%) of adults say there are "very strong" or "strong" conflicts between these groups, including 18% who say there are "very strong" conflicts and 37% who describe them as "strong."

Hispanics in particular see serious clashes between these groups: nearly seven-in-ten (68%) say there are major conflicts between immigrants and the native born, a view shared by half of whites (53%) and six-in-ten blacks (61%).

At the same time, those born outside the United States are no more likely than the native born to say there are serious conflicts between immigrants and people born in the U.S. (56% for native born vs. 53% for foreign born).

Nearly half of respondents (47%) say there are serious conflicts between the rich and poor -- a double-digit decline in perceptions of economic-class-based conflict from 1987 when the General Social Survey found that 59% saw "very strong" or "strong" conflicts between the two groups.

In the Pew Research survey, adults older than age 65 are significantly less likely than people under the age of 50 to see serious divisions by economic class (36% vs. 51%). Blacks, Hispanics, Democrats and women also are more likely that other groups to perceive major disputes between economic classes. Perhaps surprisingly, income seems to have little relationship with perceptions of rich-poor conflicts. Slightly less than half (46%) of those with annual family incomes of $100,000 or more say there are serious conflicts between the rich and poor -- and so does a virtually identical share (47%) of those earning less than $30,000.

About four-in-ten Americans see major conflicts between blacks and whites, including 53% of blacks and 47% of Hispanics, but a significantly smaller share of whites (35%).

Only 26% see major conflicts between young people and older adults -- a view shared by virtually identical proportions of older (26%) and younger adults (28%). As with the rich-poor divide, the proportion of Americans who see a great deal of generational conflict has declined substantially: In the 1992 GSS survey, fully 42% saw major divisions between the old and young.

Continue reading the full report, including further examination of how different races and partisans see social conflict in America, at pewsocialtrends.org.


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