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Jewish Journal

What Divides America? A Surprising Finding

by  David A. Lehrer

October 2, 2009 | 6:09 pm

The Pew Center publishes fascinating polls every week, some get enormous media attention, others go virtually ignored. Last week, Pew published an under-the-radar study that deserves some attention and evaluation.

In a report entitled, “Who Divides America?” the Center discovered that fewer people perceived divisions between black and white as a key dividing line in America than saw conflicts between immigrants and the native born or between rich and poor. In other words, immigrant vs. native and class conflicts outstrip race as the prisms through which Americans view their society.

As Pew notes, “The findings come at a time when discussions about the role of racism in American society have featured heavily in media coverage of the Obama presidency.”

The study found that 55% of those surveyed saw the tension between immigrants and native born Americans as being “very strong/strong.” Whites endorsed this view at 53%, Blacks at 61% and Hispanics at 68%.


Seeing class conflicts as “very strong/strong” was most common among Blacks (65%) then Latinos (55%) and finally, among whites (43%).

Race as the prism through which conflict is viewed was most common among Blacks (53%), then Latinos (47%) and finally whites (35%).

Probably the most notable finding is that only 53% of Blacks (as the report notes, “a bare majority”) see racial conflict as “very strong/strong” while far higher percentages of African Americans see significant rifts between immigrants and native born and along class lines.

What this study may explain is why so many politicians are resorting to a pseudo-populism in their attacks on the stimulus package, Wall Street bailouts and regulation and executive salaries. Their pollsters must have told them—-what Pew has just revealed to us—- that good old American populism and resentment of elites is alive and well and cuts across racial and ethnic lines.

This study puts a lot of things into perspective. Wednesday morning, as I watched Fed Chairman Bernanke being grilled by the House Financial Services Committee, I now understood why so many of his interrogators—-Congresspeople from across the country—-postured themselves as defenders of poor innocents who are being assaulted by barracudas and heartless vipers on Wall Street who manipulate the economy and their constituents. There was little room for nuance in many of their questions. Clearly, they were playing to their TV audience and they probably have read their constituents concerns and angers correctly—-exploiting populist sentiments strikes a responsive chord in today’s political climate.

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