"Interracial democracy has become - at least for analysts of contemporary public opinion - a threat to the validity of survey evidence."

forthcoming, University of Chicago Press, 2005

Lynn M. Sanders, Department of Politics, University of Virginia

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Lynn M. Sanders

In the wake of the civil rights movement, the configuration of American public life changed dramatically. New things could be said and not said about racial politics in public. Blacks could speak more freely, while whites sensed new inhibitions. Egalitarian norms structured discourse more; racist utterances were tolerated less. My book shows how American public opinion surveyors responded to these new norms of public discourse about race.

Oddly enough, while integration advanced, public opinion researchers held, more than ever, to segregationist assumptions about what Americans could say and not say in public. Today, blacks are still expected to defer in speech before whites, and whites are thought to be newly fearful of being called racist. Citizens are supposed to mask their true preferences about controversial racial issues like affirmative action.

In the framework of these assumptions, it seems necessary to isolate citizens of different races from each other in order to get them to say what they really think about racial issues. Or at least, this is the way that most researchers approach the problem of apprehending public opinion today.

Thus, one clear integrationist ambition - the possibility of sincere political exchange between citizens of different races - is decidedly repressed in contemporary political survey research. This despite the fact that public opinion research is today coming under diverse "public pressures": public opinion researchers want variously to claim that surveys mirror democratic deliberation, that they are a form of political participation, that they reflect utterances shaped by exposure to media messages or other "contextual effects" rather than singular, underlying "true attitudes" about politics.

Yet racial integration does not count for surveyors as a legitimate public pressure. Public opinion researchers today are strikingly unwilling to see the "public pressure" brought to bear by fellow citizens - especially citizens of different races - as a reasonable influence on political thinking.

Even the briefest encounter with any text considering the problem of "social desirability" or "race of interviewer" effects in survey research will indisputably bear this claim out. In part because fellow citizens - especially when they are a different race - might carry into the survey measurement context some of the new normative pressures associated with race in the post civil rights era, their influence is assumed to bias, distort, damage, or even ruin survey data altogether.

Interracial democracy has become - at least for analysts of contemporary public opinion - a threat to the validity of survey evidence.

In no small measure due to the remarkable democratic ambitions of public opinion surveyors ("we who conduct public opinion research do so because we see it as part of the solution to the dilemmas posed by democratic theory," says one), this is a problem. Where democratic theorists think "the very procedure of articulating a view in public imposes a certain reflexivity on individual preferences and opinions," public opinion researchers declare "as long as people know they are being asked to express their beliefs and feelings about race, the investigator cannot dismiss the possibility of desirability effects - people giving an insincere, "right" answer."

How did this come to pass? What can we do about it? My book answers both questions. The skepticism public opinion researchers exhibit today about the authenticity of interracial political exchange is rooted in a conceptual framework and measurement strategy that I call "privatization." Through my reading of history, including some secondary analyses but mostly first-hand accounts of how surveying figured in American racial politics from the Founding to the present day, I show why privatization made sense during segregation and how the approach was consolidated during the Second World War.

Yet, quite against the assumptions that privatization reflects, I also show that African Americans sought out opportunities to engage in interracial discourse even during segregation and even when such engagements had to be considered far more dangerous than they are now. This longer historical tradition of African Americans finding a "right to survey" joins contemporary "public pressures" in surveying to demand that public opinion researchers must move beyond the privatization of - and racial segregation in - political research.

No grand intervention - nothing like a deliberative poll, for example - is required for public opinion researchers to come to see interracial opinion as politically meaningful rather than useless data. It requires only a methodological shift. Surveying itself, when conducted with interviewers, provides a democratically defensible and analytically tenable way to represent and understand what happens when Americans of different races talk about politics with each other.

My book invokes democratic and liberal theory to defend this argument. It utilizes contemporary public opinion survey data to show how public opinion looks when interracial engagements are treated as authentic rather than biased. And it argues, on the more practical side of the methodological shift, that surveyors should be in the business of making it easier to see interracial public opinion data, by providing fuller information on interviewers, by randomly assigning them to interviews, perhaps even randomly selecting them along with respondents.

Turning back to the deep roots of surveying in American political history, I claim that the methodological shift I advance would recognize, as those who claimed a "right to survey" did, that all of the roles involved in surveying, including the role of interviewer, are political roles. This means that surveying should be evaluated according to the liberal democratic standards we embrace and utilize elsewhere in our politics.

Today, democratic and scientific public opinion surveying requires racially integrated survey interviews, where American citizens encounter and express political views before others who are racially different from them as well as the same. What emerges through such encounters is not a mistake but is instead a reflection of the best integrationist ambitions of American liberal democracy.