Raleigh, N.C. — According to a New York Times/CBS poll, a majority of Americans are now familiar with the racially inflammatory statements made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. The decision made by the NBA to ban Sterling from NBA activities and force him to sell the team has received mixed public reactions, with black respondents more likely to support the ban than whites.
Making the rounds Monday was a provocative claim made by former Los Angeles Laker great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. According to Abdul-Jabbar, "I did a little bit of research, more whites believe in ghosts than believe in racism."
Is that true?
The answer depends on how we analyze the survey data.
First, I looked into believing in ghosts. In 2005, Gallup read respondents a list of items, and respondents were then asked to answer, "whether it is something you believe in, something you're not sure about, or something you don't believe in." The survey found 32 percent of Americans believed in "ghosts / that spirits of dead people can come back in certain places/situations." While responses to the poll were not provided separately for different racial groups, Gallup noted they failed to find significant differences in beliefs by race.
More recently, a 2012 HuffPost/YouGov poll also inquired about beliefs in paranormal activities. They asked about ghosts several different ways. The most comparable one asked, “Have you, personally, ever seen or believed yourself to be in the presence of a ghost?” They found about the same percentage – 28 percent – believed in ghosts.
So, it appears that around one-third of all white adults believe in ghosts, if we also assume the HuffPost/YouGov poll results are like Gallup’s in that they are uncorrelated with race of the respondent.
Measuring perceptions of racial discrimination is a little more complicated.
Researchers tend to ask this question using slightly different question wording, which can affect answers. They also provide respondents with different ways of answering the question, which makes it hard to directly compare survey results.
While I found two recent identically worded questions, they had slightly different response options.
A 2013 CBS poll asked, "How much discrimination do you think there is against African-Americans in our society today: a lot, some, only a little, or none at all?" Just 15 percent of whites said, "a lot." This percentage is half of that professing to believe in ghosts, supporting Abdul-Jabbar’s claim. On the other hand, 52 percent said, "some." If we assume that admitting at least "some" constitutes believing racism exists, then Abdul-Jabbar is wrong.
I then asked my colleague, Steven Greene, to help locate the same question in the 2012 American National Election Study. He analyzed the same question, but it gave respondents the following response options: "a great deal," "a lot," "a moderate amount," "a little," and "none at all." It turns out, 6 percent of whites answered, "a great deal." Yet, just 4 percent of whites said, "none at all."
This, too, suggests Abdul-Jabbar is understating whites’ acknowledgment of racial discrimination against blacks.
I also looked at another question asked differently by Gallup in 2008. This question asked, "Do you think racism against blacks is or is not widespread in the U.S.?" About half of all whites, 51 percent, said racism was widespread.
So, it seems as if whites acknowledge racism against blacks, though they are unlikely to believe there is a great deal or a lot of it. These findings go against the crux of Abdul-Jabbar’s claim, though I am forced to make apples to oranges comparisons with believing in ghosts versus acknowledging racism and its severity.
People were not asked, that is, how big of a ghost problem we have in the U.S.
It should be pointed out that other scholarly studies find that whites are more likely to believe today that whites are more likely to face discrimination than blacks. Perhaps that perception is what sparked Abdul-Jabbar’s lament about the failure of whites to see racism that persists against blacks.