Immigration and Race Attitudes

Chapter 18: Public Opinion and Race Problems

Emory S. Bogardus

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The solution of racial problems includes more than the adjustment of personality differences, for the latter occur in a public opinion medium. As public opinion has prepared the way, so personality differences multiply or dissolve. In a real sense the nature of racial problems at any particular time depends on public opinion. Within the changing currents and established planes of opinion and thought, persons of different races clash and struggle, or grow friendly. Personal opinions grow into antipathetic or friendly racial opinion.

Racial opinion is a curious compound. It may be studied at close range in connection with the prevailing opinions of the people of any local community, it may be observed in the form of the opinion accompanying any particular race riot, or it may be considered in terms of the traditional origins of race mores.

Local Racial Opinion. — Every local community, whether rural or a natural psychosocial area in a large city, holds certain more or less vaguely integrated racial opinions. Whether an admixture or a juxtaposition of races is present or not makes no differences. Such factors affect the variety of opinions but not their number.

To study the racial opinions of a local community it is necessary to go to the community itself, to its written records, if there be such, and to its unwritten history, to its leaders, to its citizenry. Out of these accounts an objective statement can be woven together. Besides this, there remains the meaning of such racial opinion, that is, its origins

( 231) in the community happenings and in the personal experiences of the community residents.

A remote mountain community usually possesses stable or fixed racial opinions. " We are superior," and " there is to be no invasion " are characteristic. Everything is fixed on the basis of priority and ethnocentrism. A small trickle of outsiders does not arouse these attitudes, but the appearance of numbers of " foreigners " is usually met with stout resistance.

A metropolitan area possesses both fixed and changing racial opinions. Rooming-house areas and districts of social disorganization have few fixed racial attitudes, but wealthy residence districts and upper middle-class neighborhoods possess definite complexes. When invasion occurs, intolerance may become violent. In socially disorganized districts racial clashes may occur through sheer lack of social control.

In one of the local-community studies of racial opinion made during the Pacific Coast Race Relations Survey, the research-interview method was used. Three races, Caucasians, Negroes, and Japanese, were living in the same local community. Systematic interviewing brought out the racial opinions of each of the three major culture groups represented.[1] Many of the white people who have remained have taken a somewhat noncommittal attitude, providing it is understood that the Negroes shall encroach no farther upon the white district. They tolerate and on occasion become neighbors with the Negroes and Japanese. The latter races are viewed by many of the Americans on their merits as family and neighbor groups rather than as racial entities.

The Negroes in this area belong to the more educated and better class members of the race. As a rule they are wellordered neighbors. They are allowed freedom in home

( 232) building. Toward the Japanese, the Negro opinion is friendly — that of a fellow sufferer.

Japanese opinion, on the whole, is thankful. The Japanese in this community are glad to " be let alone "; they are appreciative of school opportunities, of a chance to worship as they wish, of homes with yards for their children. Resentment on account of " the unchristian prejudices of Christian United States " sometimes crops out.

Altogether there is a triracial tolerance. While each race has its marked differences, there are culture similarities regarding home building, economic independence, freedom of worship, school facilities, obedience of laws. Out of these similarities of striving peoples arises a common racial opinion.

Mores and Racial Opinion. — Racial opinion is inseparable from the mores, which pronounces certain social practices " good " and others " bad." Certain race relations are forbidden by the mores; certain race proposals, such as intermarriage of white and black, are nondiscussible. Such topics are not allowed to come into the field of public opinion. They have long since been " settled." To allow them to be discussed is repugnant; moreover, such discussion might lead to their modification. Ordinarily, the mores do not come within the range of human attention. Prohibitions are deep-seated and " sacred."

But let the mores be overstepped and woe to the offender. Public opinion comes to the rescue. Feelings are inflamed, horrified accusations are hurled, group patriotism and emotions turn into violence and hatred. Competition comes into the open as conscious conflict and public opinion becomes " fighting mad."

Children are born into the mores, and thus are " saturated " at an early date in their lives with both antiracial and proracial beliefs. The former arc usually accompanied by strong emotional reactions. Emotional fixations of any

( 233) antiracial nature that become established in the uncritical years of life color all opinions that come after. The mores thus may become a leading source of a person's prejudices. Since the mores must not be criticized or even discussed, a person may become unconsciously and hopelessly the victim of race prejudices. Moreover, these prejudices may easily become a part of one's personality traits. To have them questioned is considered a personal insult.

The mores thus furnish an inexorable setting for the rise of public opinion. It is probably true that, where a turbulent public opinion springs up, the mores in one way or another have been invaded. If allowed their way, the mores would keep everything settled and quiet; there would be little occasion for a powerful public opinion.

Mores are often ritualized; race mores are both taught and caught. They acquire a " divine " nature, and survive long under a false cloak. Racial and religious sanctions may become inseparable and dominate public opinion.

The mores are of a contractual nature. Parents give their children established codes and standards (mores). These become encased in sentiment and respect for parents, and may be observed, for the parents' sake, long after their inadequate or possible unjust nature has been noted. Many sons and daughters feel under obligation to parental wish and carry forward a racial mores that has little scientific foundation. Parental loyalty thus may hinder the rise of a new and needed racial opinion.

Myth, Rumor, and News. — Myth is omnipresent in the formation of racial opinion. As Dr. R. E. Park has said, a myth is a generalization which cannot be proved. It is, nevertheless, as effective as though it were demonstrable. It becomes a symbol that is accepted as the truth. Its very indistinctness gives it a fear-making quality. It rises like the green eves of a beast in the dark. The fear reactions are all powerful.


Any wild-cat generalization, as represented by the symbols, " terrible Turk," or " yellow peril," is caught up by the public ear, and broadcasted. It is given big headlines by the newspapers. The black shadow is accepted for truth.

Myth starts in rumor. Almost any person in a moment of fear—fear for his own social and economic status or for the status of his group—may impetuously give vent to startling remarks. If he wishes to secure a hearing, he exaggerates or speaks with greater force than the circumstances warrant. If an atmosphere of racial unrest already exists, then such exaggerations pass quickly from person to person, gathering momentum as they go. There is no time or disposition for calm inquiry. Research would be considered preposterous.

A rumor is a currently started and unverified statement; if it persists, it becomes a myth. Creating and spreading excitement as it goes, it is readily accepted long after it has leaped all the bounds of truth. Once started it cannot be recalled; neither can the harm it does be offset. The killing of four persons in a riot quickly becomes reported as the massacre of forty. A Negro severely beaten by a mob of white hoodlums may live to discover that he " was burned alive at the stake." Rumors easily float into myths. Racial opinion acquires new biases and is ready to listen to new rumors. Thus the vicious circle continues.

131. The director of the civic bureau of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, writing to a friend in Chicago, asked for authentic information concerning the number of Negroes killed during the riot (Chicago race riot, 1919). He sought the information because, he said, the industrial editor of the Outlook had told him that " more then 2000 Negroes were killed in the riot " and that a certain labor report placed the number at 1700. Suspecting that even the latter number was too large, although the police mentioned 10,000 wounded and killed, he wrote for information. (The actual number of Negroes killed was 23.) [2]

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Since news is not an event but an account of an event, as pointed out by Dr. Park, it is some person's " interpretation " of an event. The experiences of this person, his racial prejudices, the racial biases of the given newspaper owner — all these influence the reporter's write-up of news. The mental patterns of all concerned in the description and interpretation of racial news are more important than the events themselves. In the newspaper accounts of the Mexican agrarian policy put into effect in January, 1927, the economic " interests " of the press were clearly evident. All who do not see as " we do " are " Bolshevists." Other newspaper accounts breathe nothing but praise for the Mexican land and oil policy and refer to all Americans, " business and religious " alike, as autocrats. The distortions thus fall into two opposite extremes, and the truth — no one can find out. In no other field, unless it be the religious, is truth so likely to be distorted by protagonist observers as in racial matters. Whenever news is reported by a news organization that is determined —entirely by " private and unexamined standards," the truth is likely to be distorted and a false public opinion manufactured. Whether these private standards are vicious or lofty does not gainsay the fact that they mold the nature of news and influence public opinion as much or even more than the actual events that have occurred.

Politicians seeking votes pick up and broadcast a myth against a race which is denied the right to vote. The public seeking a thrill, feeds upon myths. If there are some helpless individuals who can be denounced right vigorously, the public is easily fooled into thinking that the denouncer is a hero of the first order, a kind of savior of his country as it were, one to whom to deny votes would be traitorous. An unfortunate result is that a prejudiced public opinion spreads. Oriental immigrants in the United States, having novotes, have been" the football of politics." To denounce

( 236) the " Chinks " or the " Japs " has brought wild applause and thousands of votes, but at the expense of a false and emotional public opinion.

By " propaganda " is meant news which has been headed up and interpreted for the purposes of persons or " interests," and which may belie the truth it purports to represent. Propaganda against any foreign race is easily promulgated, especially if it plays upon the loyalty of natives to their own people. A race fearful of losing its own status will " believe " almost any propaganda against other races. Propaganda may play upon a person's emotional nature until the latter develops pathological patterns. " Race riots " in cities are partly propaganda made. " Housing wars " including the mysterious burning of homes are often the outgrowth of propaganda.

Steps in Antiracial Opinion. —" Invasion " is usually the chief factor in the rise of adverse racial opinions. The mores prohibit certain inter-race relationships; but when these are " overstepped," the first or " flare-up " stage of racial opinion develops. A few persons whose emotions have been shocked by a disturbance of the mores begin to talk vigorously. Wild statements and excitement rule.

After the original " flare-up " comes the second or " organization " stage. The sources of irritation persist. Countless small group " gab-fests " pass from fickle indignation exhibitions to a more determined procedure. All are certain that something must be done. Some one leads the way in calling a mass meeting, a set of officers is elected, and a simple organization is perfected. Spellbinders and orators take the stage. Racial inflammation expresses itself in denunciation; local patriotism rules.

Then the third or " action " stage follows. It ranges all the way from posting prohibitory signs to obtaining injunctions. Rioting may ensue, hut, on the other hand, someone may intervene. Some of the more thoughtful persons of

( 237) broad-minded protest. They urge caution. A few courageous souls may flatly " object " to the inhuman procedure. But they are dealt with summarily, called all sorts of names, and made to appear as traitors. If they persist, they may be burned in effigy; they are sent threatening letters and are ostrasized in social and business ways. Exponents of fair play are " hooted down and out."

The fourth stage is characterized by fixation of new prejudices. No matter what the final outcome of the race conflict may be, the enraged emotions " fixate " new prejudices in the mores. If the invasion persists, many clashes and riots occur; and if the conflict lasts long, a greatly modified mores results.

Areas of Racial Opinion. — Racial opinion occurs in high-pressure areas with low-pressure regions between. The first express either antipathy or friendliness. The antipathetic areas possess a higher emotional pressure than the friendliness-pressure areas. In between are the low-pressure or neutral districts in which high pressures are likely to be manifested at any time. The high-pressure areas of both types are relatively stationary. Antipathetic centers of race opinion subside but remain powerful. Friendly centers of race opinion ordinarily attract little attention to themselves, but are more or less lasting.

The antipathetic pressure areas are definitely centered as a rule in the offices of organizations such as those of exclusion leagues, native sons, and " patriotic " bodies, of local community organizations, of certain newspapers, or in the homes of specific private citizens. Strong emotional and defense reactions focus effort in the distribution of antirace literature and the planning of propaganda meetings.

The emotional pressure is greater in antirace areas than in the fair play regions. There is more emotional pressure per person in the former than in the latter, and hence there is more activity, excitement, and furor The former appear in

( 238) explosive lumps; the latter gradually diffuse. A small area of antirace opinion is likely to make a larger " noise " and a greater impression than a large area of fair play opinion. It meets with prompter and more dynamic responses. It is more aggressive and hence effective.

Antirace opinion is deliberately advertised, while fair play opinion is not " news." It is " assumed to be normal " and receives publicity with difficulty. Antirace facts are spectacular, imply a fight, and stimulate the wish for security. They touch off dislikes. They verge sufficiently on the pathological to arouse morbid curiosity. They are excitingly destructive, like a conflagration; fair play opinion is peacefully constructive, like the growing of an oak.

The " fair-play " pressure areas are not only more diffused but more rational. Sometimes they center in an organization for international good will or inter-race relations, a church organization or a broad-gauge chamber of commerce. Sporadic efforts, limited financial supports, frequent expression of brotherhood ideals are characteristic. The thinness of " resolutions " is being recognized, and the practice is passing.

There are fair-play areas with headquarters in the offices of the various organizations, business, religious, community, of the immigrant races themselves. Feeling themselves to be misunderstood and mistreated, they frequently ask Americans for assistance and coöperation develops between the native and immigrant fair-play areas. Efforts to spread " favorable " reports are occasionally varied by " going into the courts " and asking there for justice.

The regions of dead calm and of small eddies that exist between the high-pressure areas are occasionally whipped into a fury by the outreaching whirls of antirace opinion. Independent flurries may also occur, because of the arrival of " invaders." If there is no invasion in a competitive sense, then racial opinion remains dormant.

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132. I live in a community in which there are one hundred Mexicans — about twenty-five Mexican families. They have been here for a number of years and are growing slowly. They tend to their own business and seem to be peaceful enough. They work for the white ranchers. White people need them, and only a kindly feeling toward them exists. The only time that there has been a flare-up was a year ago last winter, when some of them committed a nuisance. The trouble makers were visitors who were sent away. Everything has been all right since .[3]

The various areas are " publics "; they are " circles of influence." Each has its own set of opinions — its own " public opinion," bubbling up out of its own set of mores and conflicting with each other. Racial opinions occupy an intermediate rôle between the stable group mores and the fluctuating personal experiences of the day.

At the gigantic task of making over the currents and planes of racial opinion, education is continually at work. But education has much that is unscientific to overcome. It is often governed by the mores, and helpless before destructive experiences. In its socially scientific aspects, however, it is gaining ground, and much may be expected of it in the solving of racial problems.


1. Make a case study of any race-conflict situation of which you have first-hand knowledge in terms of the classes and stages of public opinion manifested.

2. Make a case study of racial myths in your community.

3. Analyze in full any specific example of race propaganda.

4. Try to develop a new or a changed group opinion on some race matter, and describe the main phases of the experiment.

5. Start a race rumor among ten friends, and arrange to have the last report given back to you, noting changes which have occurred in the rumor and analyzing the origins of each change.

6. Compare and contrast the expressions of public opinion in a racial conflict with public opinion in a religious dispute.

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7. Analyze the different concrete ways in which the mores hold public opinion under control in your community.


ABBOTT, EDITH, Historical Aspects of the Immigration Problem, Sec. V. University of Chicago Press, 1926.

BOGARDUS, E. S., The New Social Research, Chaps. XI-XIII. Jesse Ray Miller, 1926.

CHICAGO COMMISSION ON RACE RELATIONS, The Negro in Chicago, Chaps. IX, X. University of Chicago Press, 1922.

COOLIDGE, MARY R., Chinese Immigration, Chap. III. Holt, 1909.

DETWEILER, F. G., The Negro Press in the United States. University of Chicago Press, 1922.

PARK, R. E., The Immigrant Press and Its Control, Parts I-III. Harper, 1922.

REUTER, E. B., The American Race Problem, Chaps. VII, XVI. Crowell, 1927.

THOMAS, W. I., AND ZNANIECKI, F., The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, Vol. II. Knopf, 1927.


  1. The interviews were conducted by E. F. Bamford, a member of the Race Relations Survey staff. A Part of the results is reported in E.S. Bogardus, The New Social Research. Jesse Ray Miller Press, Los Angeles, 1926.
  2. The Negro in Chicago, p. 565. Chicago Commission on Race Relations, 1922.
  3. Mexican Immigrant Survey of the Southwest.

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