The Deeply Flawed Racism Index

An American flag flies outside a church in Queens, N.Y. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
Robert Jones’s index is deeply flawed and is not a measure of racism, let alone white supremacy.

The Public Religion Research Institute provides valuable polling information on the intersection of politics and religion. This year, Robert P. Jones, its CEO, published White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Its centerpiece is a “racism index,” constructed using the Institute’s polling data.

The book has received universal glowing acceptance, including positive stories in the Washington Post, NPR, NBC news, and the liberal Catholic magazine, Commonweal. In none of these cases, however, was there any critical discussion of the construction of the index. In fact, it is deeply flawed and is not a measure of racism, let alone white supremacy.

Jones’s thesis is aptly summed up in the New York Times book review:

Jones draws on his extensive experience with polling about religion to introduce a “racism index” — a set of 15 survey questions designed to assess attitudes toward white supremacy and Black people. The findings are clear: “The more racist attitudes a person holds, the more likely he or she is to identify as a white Christian.” The results hold true for regular and infrequent churchgoers, across geographical regions and for white evangelicals, mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics. It’s hard to argue with his conclusion that white supremacy is somehow genetically encoded into white Christianity in the United States.

Jones constructed his index by scoring how individuals answered certain questions. For each question, there was a binary scoring: One set of answers signals racist views while the other set signals non-racist views. Yet on a number of these questions, other surveys indicate that a sizeable share of black respondents gave the racist answer.

Respondents were asked: “Do you think most white Americans have benefitted from racism against minorities?” Answering “Have not” was scored the racist answer. Yet in a CNN-sponsored survey, among blacks and Hispanics surveyed, 27 and 39 percent, respectively, answered “Have not.” Does this make these respondents racist against themselves?

Let’s look at the question on Confederate monuments: “Do you see monuments to Confederate soldiers more as symbols of Southern pride or more as symbols of racism?” Answering “pride” was scored as racist. In a Huffington Post questionnaire, only 58 percent of blacks surveyed answered that it was racism; 17 percent were unsure, and 25 percent believed it reflected either pride or some factor other than either race or pride.

A question concerning past immigrant success was also included: “Irish, Italians, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.” An affirmative answer was scored as racist. But when black Americans were asked the same question, Matt Yglesias reported that only about a third disagreed.

Jones’s questionnaire also included a question about work ethic: “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.” An affirmative answer was scored racist. But again, the CNN survey indicated that this is exactly how a substantial share of black Americans answered. Specifically, 42 percent of black respondents believed lack of motivation and willingness to work hard was a major problem, 35 percent believed it was a minor problem, and only 21 percent believed it was no problem at all.

Jones’s survey also covered police actions: “Do you think recent killings of African American men by police are isolated incidents or are they part of a broader pattern of how police treat African Americans?” Answering “isolated” was scored racist. There are two problems with this framing. First, a respondent might think killings are isolated but also believe there is discriminatory use of nonlethal force, leading to support for a broad range of police reforms. Should a person with these views be deemed racist?

Second, there may be credible empirical support for claims that there is no racial bias in the police use of lethal force and killings of unarmed black Americans are isolated. The Washington Post has reported the following number of unarmed blacks killed by police in recent years: 23 in 2018, 14 in 2019, and 10 in 2020 through October 28. Moreover, Harvard economics professor Roland Fryer analyzed police shootings in California, Colorado, Florida, Texas and Washington State. He found no racial differences in shootings overall, in any city in particular, or in any subset of the data. Recently, he noted,

Several scholars have rightly pointed out that these data all begin with an interaction, and suggested that racist policing manifests itself in more interactions between blacks and the police. The impact of this hypothesis in our shootings data seems minimal. The results on police shootings are statistically the same across all call types—ranging from officer-initiated contact with a suspicious person (where racism in whom to police is likely paramount) to a 911 call of a homicide in progress (where interaction with the potential suspect is more likely independent of race).

If Jones’s constructed index is so defective, how could much of the media so unquestioningly embrace it? Does it reflect animus towards those who do not support liberal social-justice narratives? At the very least, it suggests that Jones began with a view that racism is the only explanation for any unwillingness to support his visions of white supremacy. As Michael Powell deftly points out, white supremacy is ill-defined and too often stifles an ability to understand the persistence of racial disparities.

While there is no denying the persistence of racism, it alone cannot explain the gun violence that harms too many black neighborhoods and the weak academic skills of too many black ten-year-olds. To combat these serious problems, we have to move past white racism to identify the most effective policies. Only by improving black neighborhoods and black early age education can we significantly reduce the persistent large racial disparities that plague our society.


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