"Little" and "Big" pictures in our heads: Race, local context, and innumeracy about racial groups in the United States

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Americans do not know what percentage of the nation's residents are whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and American Indians. Using the 2000 General Social Survey, I find that respondents of all races underestimate the percentages of whites and overestimate the percentages of racial/ethnic minority groups and multiracial Americans in the United States; however, they perceive their local communities quite differently. As a first step toward understanding this discrepancy, I test whether individuals' local surroundings serve as a source of information for their pictures of the United States. I examine the relationship between "objective" data and respondents' subjective perceptions of where they live, and compare their respective effects on Americans' perceptions of the nation. Multivariate multilevel analyses show that respondents' perceptions of different racial group sizes in their communities are the strongest predictors of innumeracy at the national level, while "objective" racial context measured at the local level has less of an effect. These findings have important implications for research on racial context, which assumes that census numbers for respondents' locales are good proxies for their perceptions of the size of racial/ethnic groups in their communities. Furthermore, these findings suggest that scholars need to start thinking about why whites and non-whites have similar "big pictures" of the nation, why their "little pictures" vary a great deal, and why the motivations for over- and underestimation may differ by racial/ethnic group.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)393-412
Number of pages20
JournalPublic Opinion Quarterly
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Social Sciences(all)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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