Martin Gilens demonstrates that policy is informed by public perception. He asks the straightforward question: Do white American’s racial attitudes significantly shape the positions they hold on ostensibly race-neutral social policies such as crime, welfare, immigration, and illegal drugs? “With regard to welfare, the answer is clear: Racial attitudes are a powerful influence on white America’s welfare views. Indeed…racial considerations are the single most important factor shaping whites’ views of welfare”.
Gilens uses the now well known ‘welfare mother’ experiment, in which respondents were asked their impressions of a welfare recipient described as either a black or white woman in her early thirties, who has a ten year old child, and who has been on welfare for the past year. Respondents were asked 1) how likely is it that the woman described will try hard to find a job, and 2) how likely is it that she will have more children to get a larger welfare check? The interest in race comes about through considering does identifying the welfare mother as black increase the relationship between the associated perception and whites’ welfare attitudes and welfare policy preferences? The dramatic differences in the effect of perceptions of black and white welfare mothers indicate that the widespread intuition about the ‘race coded’ nature of contemporary welfare politics is correct; white American’s welfare views are clearly not ‘race-neutral’ expressions of their economic self interest, commitment to individualism, or evaluations of poor people in general. Instead, those views are strongly rooted in their beliefs about black people, and particularly their perceptions of black welfare recipients.
Gilens concludes that these attitudes must be understood in their societal context (the narrative). “Although there are more whites among welfare recipients than there are blacks, beliefs about blacks in general and black welfare mothers in particular, are substantially more important in shaping whites’ welfare views than are beliefs about the poor, or perceptions of white welfare mothers. Thus the demographics of poverty cannot fully account for whites’ tendency to think about welfare in racial terms. Instead, this tendency must be understood as the product of a particular social and cultural context within which blacks overrepresentation among the poor acquires an exaggerated salience for white Americans“.
There appears to be an ‘unspoken agenda’ of racial imagery which defines the public understanding of welfare policy. The fiction of black individuals refusing to subscribe to another fiction (the American ideology of work ethic and individualism) leads to an empirical policy outcome which has a direct effect upon how different segments of society, as defined by race, are understood and leads in turn to the cementing of a social and cultural hierarchy. Facts be damned! This appears to be an example of a group defined by a fiction (race), fictitiously (apparently) refusing to subscribe to another fiction (ideology), which leads to the perpetuation of another fiction (black’s are lazy and undeserving) which solidifies an ego-reinforcing fiction (whites are superior and deserving) which informs a policy which creates a reality. So public perceptions matter, even if they are essentially empirically baseless. They impact policy. How do they interact with art? Do artists lead the vanguard? Or are they late to the party?