And I was stunned, first by the data on interracial marriage and then, retrospectively, by my earlier ignorance of these data.
Was approval of interracial marriage only 4% in 1958? I had no idea. I looked it up at the Gallup site and it seems to be so. But it’s just hard for me to get my head around this. I mean, sure, I know that attitudes on racial issues have changed a lot, but still . . . 4 percent?? If you’d’ve asked me, I might have guessed 30 percent, or 20 percent, certainly I never would’ve given any number close to 4 percent.
I also learned from the Gallup report that “black-white marriages . . . still represent less than 1% of all married couples.” This sounded low to me, but then I thought about it: if 13% of Americans are black, and 7% of blacks marry white people, then this comes to 1% of all married couples. 7% is low, but it’s not as low as 1%.
In some ways that second number (the total percentage of marriages that are between blacks and whites) is somewhat of a trick question. Still, I’m surprised how far off my intuition was on both these numbers (the rate of approval of interracial marriage in 1958, and the current percentage of marriages that are between whites and blacks). Indeed, I still can’t fit the 1958 approval number into my understanding of public opinion.
I’m reminded of our discussion with Charles Murray a couple years ago regarding the claim that “it is morally wrong for a woman to bring a baby into the world knowing that it will not have a father.” Murray and several commenters seemed convinced that it is “obsessively nonjudgmental” to not think it is morally wrong for a woman etc. It was a fun and somewhat disturbing discussion because I really couldn’t understand these commenters and they really couldn’t understand me.
I similarly have difficulty understanding how 96% of Americans in 1958 could’ve disapproved of interracial marriages. I mean, sure, the data are there, and I guess I could fashion a logical argument, something along the lines of 50% were just flat-out prejudiced and 46% were not personally prejudiced but felt that, in practice, an interracial marriage probably wouldn’t work out in a prejudiced world. Still, I never would’ve guessed the numbers would be so high. My continued astonishment here is a sign to me that I need to further rejigger my mental model of public opinion to handle this data point.
In addition to this point having general statistical relevance—the idea that a single data point, like a single story (as discussed in my paper with Basbøll) has the potential to falsify a model and transform one’s worldview—it also relates to what I think is a fundamental issue in political science: as I wrote in that earlier discussion:
We often have the tendency to think that our political opponents agree with us, deep down, even if they don’t want to admit it. Hence you see Thomas Frank trying to explain the phenomenon of ordinary conservative voters, or various conservative politicians insisting that ordinary blacks and hispanics are fundamentally conservative and are voting for Democrats by mistake, or Charles Murray imagining that my friends and I agree with him that it’s wrong for a woman to have a baby without a male partner. . . . [and this contributes to] the difficulty of understanding across demographic, geographic, and partisan divides.