But Eugene — YOU’RE not Asian…

A recent New York Times poll contained the startling result that, when asked what proportion of the U.S. population is black, 8% of white respondents and 17% of black respondents chose “more than 50%.”

Full poll here (.pdf file) The relevant question is #80.

Question: are there really this many people who think that the United States is more than half black? Or are there this many people who don’t know how much makes 50%?

According to this account of polls in 1990 and 1998, 24% of Jews and 58% of non-Jews think Jews make up more than 10% of the U.S. population. (It’s actually under 3%.) This one, I’d guess, really is a matter of people finding 10% hard to distinguish from 3%, and not some kind of general tendency to oversemitize one’s surroundings.

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6 thoughts on “But Eugene — YOU’RE not Asian…

  1. Pete L. Clark says:

    I would like to think that the portion of those surveyed who didn’t know that “more than 50%” means “more than all other ethnic groups put together” is statistically insignificant. I wonder how one would test this hypothesis?

    You might be interested to hear that upon reading this entry, I myself took a guess at the percentage of Americans who are black. Upon consulting 2006 census information, I found out that my guess was pretty wildly inaccurate as well. I won’t give numbers — anyone who is reading this message can find out for themselves, and they can take a guess as well — but I will say that America is considerably whiter than I thought. Also, I grew up in Phladelphia, which I was always sure was more than 50% black, but this too turns out to not quite be the case, although it is close enough to make one wonder about how multiracial people classify themselves. (After more thought, I think what I was told is that well more than 50% of the students in the Philadelphia public school district are black. This may yet be true…)

  2. John Cowan says:

    Which all reminds me of the American couple with three children who decided to have no more, and all because they had heard that one in four children born today is Chinese.

  3. Isabel Lugo says:

    Twelve percent is the number I’ve always heard for the percentage of the US which is black. This may have been true when I heard it; apparently 2006 census estimates have it at 13.4%, plus 2.0% “two or more races”; a lot of these people probably count black as one of these races.

    It’s easy to explain why people think there are more Jews than there are — people’s opinions are shaped by what they see on television, and I suspect there are more Jews on television (both as newscasters and such and as fictional characters) than in the general population. This, in turn, is because there are more Jews in New York than just about anywhere else outside of Israel, and that’s where a lot of this comes from.

    As for Pete Clark’s comment about Philadelphia: Philadelphia actually has a larger black population than white population, according to 2006 Census estimates. (41.8% white, 44.3% black.) In 2000 it was 45.0% white, 43.2% black. (Numbers from census bureau fact sheets.) I knew that both white and black were in the 40s, but I didn’t realize it had shifted so much in the past few years! In fact, if I had had to guess I would have guessed the shift was going the other way, because one hears a lot about “gentrification” in Philly these days and that often, although not always, means white newcomers displacing black long-time residents.

  4. Isabel Lugo says:

    I gave 13.4% for the proportion of the population which is black, from this Wikipedia article which claims to be using 2006 Census estimates. But the source they claim to use is this one from the Census Bureau, which says it’s 12.4%. I’m not sure why. (And the actual figure is not particularly relevant for the present purpose; 50% is a huge overestimate either way.)

  5. There’s a non-negligible subset of Americans who never, or very rarely, travel. I’ve meet people who have never been more than 100 miles from their birthplace, for instance. Such folks might be likely to extrapolate from their direct experience, and if they are in an area with a disproportionate number of blacks (e.g. big cities, the South), report overly hight numbers. Of course, African-Americans themselves are more likely to live in such areas, and hence more likely to overestimate this.

    That said, I do think that the media somehow gives the impression that the African-American population is larger than it is, perhaps because they have had a disproportionate impact on popular culture, especially music, and also because they are a key voting block for the Democratic party. Well, that and because fear of the other sells papers…

  6. Pete L. Clark says:

    In response to 3: well, you kind of ruined the guessing game for everyone else, but I suppose there are plenty of other similar games to keep people amused.

    I was basing my Philadelphia figures off of the 2000 census rather than the 2006 census. It is interesting that six years has brought such a significant shift. But anyway I had thought (since well before the year 2000) that more than 50% of the population of Philadelphia was black, a point on which I can still claim to have been wrong all along.

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