Ygz is glad to see that polls show African Americans’ views of the state of race relations hving improved dramatically in recent months, but surprised to see that fully 44 percent of black respondents believed that blacks and whites now enjoy equal opportunity in the United States—despite ample evidence that, presidential elections notwithstanding, this is not yet the case.
Insofar as many of the differences in opportunity Yglesias points up have to do with “starting endowments,” it’s possible that respondents are just implicitly controlling for these by taking the question as making a pairwise comparison: Does a random black person starting from a particular social and economic position have as good a chance as a random white person similarly situated? Whether this is the “right” way to answer the question depends on what you’re getting at, but I’d expect that priming respondents with a question about current race relations (as opposed to, say, a question about whether historical injustices have been rectified) invites this frame.
Even so, do people genuinely believe that the playing field is otherwise perfectly equal? That subconscious stereotyping doesn’t lead to disparate treatment in hundreds of subtle ways, even where overt racism is disavowed? Maybe not, but it is possible that we’re hitting the point of diminishing returns for the awareness of inequity. There’s scads of psychological literature establishing that, in essence, the only people with an accurate estimate of their talent and popularity are incurable pessimists. Or, put another way, we’re all naturally prone to “unrealistic optimism” and, so long as it doesn’t cross over into outright delusion, this is good for us: Overestimating (within limits) how likely you are to succeed at something actually makes you more likely to succeed at it.
That leads to an obvious tradeoff when it comes to unequal opportunity: Holding social circumstances constant, acting on the background assumption that you have a fair chance at success probably helps you succeed. (How much enthusiasm could I summon for sending around pitches if I thought many editors would glance at my name and delete them unread? How would the pitches written in that mind-set read?) Of course, the same background assumption also makes you less disposed to civic or political action aimed at correcting whatever disparity exists—but our beliefs and actions shape our own lives centrally, whereas most of us make at most marginal contributions to social and political change. When the disparities are huge and amenable to direct political remedy—no more segregated schools; no more “need not apply” want ads—the balance of considerations would be a no-brainer even if the disparity weren’t so flagrant as to make denial pretty much impossible. But when your group’s chances are, let’s say, decent without yet being equal, and when a major source of remaining inequality is the sort of subliminal attitude for which there’s no quick legislative solution, you might very well be better off proceeding on the belief that opportunities were equal, even though they’re not.
This wouldn’t have to be some kind of calculated self-deception. We know that people tend to imitate and adopt the ideas and behaviors of visibly successful people. So if the more successful members of a community tend to be those who (mistakenly) believe that chances are equal, or who at least act as though they believe this, then that attitude is likely to spread. Of course, that’s a long term effect, and probably not a good account of month-to-month or even year-to-year polling trends.
Update: Ta-Nehisi Coates seems to have more or less the same take, and he’s presumably in a better position to know.