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Surveys: Americans Have Positive Attitudes Towards Most Minorities - 2002-06-26

How do Americans feel about foreigners and minorities after the September 11 terrorist attacks? Surveys reveal that, while attitudes are positive in general, opinions are low about specific groups seen as linked to the destruction.

The September 11 terrorist attacks stunned people across the United States. However, studies reveal that the shock does not translate into general hostility toward foreigners and minorities.

Princeton University psychologist Susan Fiske, who studies prejudice and discrimination, surveyed hundreds of people, from college students to retirees, since the September attacks. She found that, overall, Americans view ethnic groups and non-citizens favorably. "There are surprisingly few changes in attitudes after" September 11, she said, "Really, things have returned for the most part to a pretty clear baseline of tolerance."

There are exceptions, however. Ms. Fiske finds that U.S. citizens have less favorable attitudes toward Muslim groups. "Very specific groups - Palestinians, Afghanis and people from Pakistan - all elicit disrespect, dislike and contempt," she added, "and that is not a very positive sign."

Similar findings come from a survey conducted at the University of Michigan. Political scientist Michael Traugott and his colleagues interviewed more than 600 American adults shortly after September 11 and again six months later. Mr. Traugott says that U.S. citizens gave higher ratings to groups such as Blacks, Hispanics and Asians, but reported less preference for Arab groups, specifically Palestinians. Americans had higher ratings of groups in the United States. They had lower ratings, and sometimes very low ratings, of groups directly related to the Middle East, or what was described as a source of the attacks.

Nevertheless, Mr. Traugott finds that most U.S. citizens oppose selective checks on individuals because of their ethnicity. "We did ask one question -- whether or not people should be subject to searches because they are Arab or Muslim," he said, "and only one in four Americans supported that."

Mr. Traugott's survey also reveals that, although U.S. citizens are concerned about their personal safety, they do not approve of tightening immigration policies. Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske finds that most Americans are tolerant of ethnic diversity.

"Most surveys show that maybe about 10 percent of Americans are openly bigoted toward people from other groups, including Arabs and Middle-Easterners," she said. "Somewhere around 80 percent of Americans really have as a goal group tolerance and good intentions towards people from other groups."

At Harvard University, psychologist Mahzarin Banaji agrees. She says that the desire to forget about domestic ethnic conflicts and come together as one nation is common in countries that have experienced a threat to their security. "Fear or anxiety might create a greater bonding between the members of the ethnic groups within the country," she noted. "Having an enemy out there can in fact make friends amongst people who might not otherwise be."

As the studies indicate, the events of September 11 made Americans more concerned about their safety, but not more hostile toward foreigners or ethnic minorities.