Opinion

You're wrong about the percentage of minorities in the U.S.

How demographic misperceptions fuel rightwing media fearmongers

What do Americans see when they look in the mirror? Or rather, how do they envision the country in their mind's eye? A new poll from YouGov America gives us an answer — and it is troubling, though perhaps not in the way it first seems.

In broad terms, the poll shows that Americans consistently, and vastly, overestimate the size of minority groups. What portion of society is gay and lesbian? Respondents say 30 percent; in truth it's about 3 percent. Bisexuals? People say 29 percent; in reality, it's 4 percent. How about transgender people? Those polled say 21 percent; it's actually more like 0.6 percent.

The same pattern holds for religious, as well as racial and ethnic, minorities. Respondents estimate the country is 27 percent Muslim and 30 percent Jewish when the actual proportions are 1 and 2 percent, respectively. Those polled likewise think Native Americans make up 27 percent of the country when they are 1 percent, Asian Americans are 29 percent when they are 6 percent, and Black Americans are 41 percent when they are 12 percent.

The first instinct for many when they hear about such responses is to speculate about causes of the error. These range from dismissing the findings (No way Americans could be this ill-informed! They must be messing with the pollsters) to speculating that they're mainly a function of television and movies portraying a world in which minorities are more prevalent than they are in the real world. Then there are those who see the results as an ominous reflection of paranoia and bigotry at large in the country, with the results driven mainly by ignorance combined with fear of the Other.

The write-up included with the polling results persuasively argues away such concerns. Yet, it also leaves open the possibility that there's nonetheless something disturbing in the results — though less about the cause of the skew than its political and cultural consequences.

According to the interpretive essay accompanying the poll by data journalist Taylor Orth, the poll's surprising findings can be explained by the concept of "uncertainty-based rescaling." That's the process whereby people try to compensate for their own biases when they're asked to estimate the relative size of a population about which they're uncertain. This process of compensation leads them to shift the estimate in the direction of the mean group size (50 percent). We can see this at work in the vast overestimation of small groups sizes in the poll, but also in the reverse direction, when people also underestimate the size of larger groups.

So, respondents in the YouGov poll think 65 percent of Americans have at least a high school degree when the actual portion is 89 percent. They also think 66 percent own a car when it's more like 88 percent, that 59 percent have flown on a plane when it's actually 88 percent, that 58 percent are Christians when the true portion is closer to 70 percent, and that 62 percent have a household income over $25,000 when in reality it's 82 percent.

The uncertainty-based-rescaling thesis is also confirmed by the relative accuracy of estimates made about groups that fall close to 50 percent of the population. Respondents think 50 percent of the country voted for Republicans in the last election (it's actually 47 percent), that 55 percent are married (it's really 51 percent), and that 58 percent of Americans have at least one child (that's extremely close to the reality of 57 percent).

As for the worry that inflated responses about minorities are driven by fear and bigotry, this is belied by the pollster examining answers submitted by members of certain minority groups about their own group. In doing so, YouGov found "they were no better (and often worse) than non-group members at guessing the relative size of the minority group they belong to." For example:

Black Americans estimate that, on average, Black people make up 52 percent of the U.S. adult population; non-Black Americans estimate the proportion is roughly 39 percent, closer to the real figure of 12 percent. First-generation immigrants we surveyed estimate that first-generation immigrants account for 40 percent of U.S. adults, while non-immigrants guess it is around 31 percent, closer to the actual figure of 14 percent.

So estimation errors, however extreme, appear to follow mainly from rather benign causes.

Where things become more troubling is in reflecting on the likely effects of the quite common tendency of people to overestimate the size of minorities when guessing about their portion of the population.

The American right has created a highly profitable model of niche media by playing on people's fears of being overrun, outnumbered, and replaced by a threatening them. Exactly who poses the threat changes from day to day and week to week, depending on the news cycle. Sometimes it's immigrants. At other times, it's native-born racial minorities. At still others, it's gays, lesbians, and transgender people.

Whatever the group, the fearmongering gains traction among listeners, viewers, and readers by portraying each as a significant segment of the population on the cusp of commanding enormous demographic and political power to transform the country as a whole in its image. The reason the perception of threat feels justified is that it plays on and into the general tendency to exaggerate the size of minorities, which seems to confirm the danger.

It's in reaction to the right's incessant focus on the threat posed by a series of minority groups that leads the more progressive-leaning mainstream media outlets (The New York Times, CNN, NPR) and entertainment conglomerates to devote outsized attention to these same groups — especially to the racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and transphobia they face. The aim of this news coverage and attention in TV series is to generate sympathy for these groups along with support for their legal protections from persecution.

But then the right-wing noise machine focuses on this overabundance of mainstream-media attention to drive home its message that these groups are incredibly powerful and using their strength to manipulate influential institutions to advance their interests at the expense of what's best for "ordinary" Americans.

If some of the overestimation of minority size picked up on the YouGov poll is driven by the prominence of minority groups in the media (both news and entertainment), I suspect it's mainly a function of this feedback loop: People unthinkingly assume minority groups are larger than they are; the right cultivates fear by building on this presumption; more progressive media outlets try to defend these groups from right-wing backlash by repeatedly focusing on their struggles; and this reinforces the perception that minority groups make up a larger segment of the population, and wield far more political power, than they really do.

Because the right appears to be building on an innate tendency of people to exaggerate the size of minority groups when they are ignorant of their true size, the best thing mainstream media outlets can do to undercut the dynamic sketched above may be to regularly and repeatedly remind listeners, viewers, and readers of the true size of these groups. Informing their audience of the facts does nothing to undermine pleas for minority justice. On the contrary, it underscores that in most cases we're talking about a very modest number of people seeking protection from various forms of harm inflicted by institutions and individuals who belong to vastly larger groups.

This may well be a case where a little knowledge really does go a long way toward making a positive difference.     

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