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Not just our views, but what we are viewing

Published Oct. 6, 2005

A survey just released by a human-relations organization presents mostly so what's new conclusions.

But they needed to be presented. And they need to be studied.

Within its non-revelatory pages is an explanation for the growing polarity between races in the United States, and the topic of the necessary dialogue that isn't taking place.

The survey was commissioned by what used to be the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

The basic finding is that white Americans and non-white Americans see their world differently. That is neither a new nor particularly original finding. The attitudes of black and white Americans toward their relative status in this country have always been divergent, a fact that is documentable from the time when scholars first decided black opinion mattered enough to be measured, assumable for the period before that.

This survey found that black and other minority groups said they don't have equal opportunities when it comes to education, employment and housing. White respondents said those groups have the same opportunities as they do.

That is an obvious contradiction, but does it mean one group is right and the other wrong? Or does it mean both groups are wrong and reality lies somewhere in between?

Or is it even necessary to make such a determination?

Reality, after all, is not something that sits there in absoluteness. Reality is that thing as it appears to us _ in bits and pieces, supplemented by assumptions we make about the parts we don't see.

In a philosophy class, that definition might be acceptable. In a philosophy class, no one has to reconcile for himself and his family why he didn't get the job. But in American society, everybody does.

And in American society, when rejection can't be attributed to qualifications or some other tangible factor that justifies it, then the intangibles affecting choices come into play.

In our largely segregated society, race remains the most pervasive and powerful of those influences.

When a man is mistreated by police, passed over for a promotion, denied a loan or portrayed negatively by his newspaper, and he sees only one consistent difference between himself and people who don't face those problems, he concludes that difference is the problem.

Black Americans, therefore, have little trouble concluding they are denied opportunities because of their color.

White Americans, on the other hand, are usually forced to attribute their difficulties to other factors, but are not averse to blaming race in the occasional instance where they are passed over in favor of a minority group member.

But they have few occasions to associate negative consequences with their race and are often unwilling to believe the race bias charges that black people level against them. Often they counter with the charge that such claims are merely a way for black people to excuse their failures.

Ironically, though, the group that most consistently felt it has been denied equal opportunity is the black middle class. This group, rather than failure, represents a degree of success.

Eighty-six percent of black middle class respondents were critical of unequal treatment by police, the court system, employers, the media and banks. Slightly less critical was the black working class, at 77 percent.

The survey drew no conclusions from that result, but it could be an indication that black people in the middle class _ who are educated and have followed the traditional rules for success _ are being frustrated when they are denied access to the top of their fields.

A more dangerous bit of irony is that white people surveyed tended to view the state of affairs as success, while black respondents saw it as failure, a circumstance sure to continue the alienation that's been noted since the 1960s.

The greatest bit of irony though is that both views represent reality. When black and white people undertook the struggle for civil rights, they were fighting for a different goal.

White people wanted to remove the blatant barriers to opportunity. Black people were fighting for equal opportunity.

One goal was achieved.

The other can't be forgotten.