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Gallup Vault: Public More Hopeful Than Kerner Commission

Gallup Vault: Public More Hopeful Than Kerner Commission

Fifty years ago this week, Americans were given the unsettling news that the country was moving "toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal." This was the conclusion of a presidential commission authorized by President Lyndon Johnson and chaired by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner Jr. to study the causes for widespread racial unrest in the country.

In a Gallup poll conducted shortly after the commission issued its report on Feb. 29, 1968, just 36% of Americans agreed that the nation was self-segregating along racial lines, while the slight majority disagreed. Attitudes on this were similar between the races, with 52% of whites and 49% of blacks disagreeing with the grim forecast.

U.S. Public Reaction to Kerner Commission 1968 Report
The conclusion of the President's Commission on Civil Disorders was that our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal. Do you agree with their conclusion, or not?
Whites Blacks U.S. adults
% % %
Agree 36 31 36
Disagree 52 49 52
No opinion 12 20 13
Gallup, May 2-7, 1968

More than 150 race riots had occurred in U.S. cities between 1965 and 1968, and the Kerner Commission placed the blame squarely on white racism. Gallup tested public agreement that racism existed, asking, "How well do you think negroes are being treated in this community -- the same as whites are, not very well or badly?"

Here, whites and blacks saw things very differently. Nearly two in three blacks (64%) thought blacks were treated "not very well" or "badly" in their community, whereas nearly three in four whites (73%) thought blacks received the same treatment as whites.

Similarly, 54% of blacks vs. 18% of whites believed most businesses in their area discriminated in hiring against blacks.

Kerner Solutions Received Mixed Reviews

In addition to describing and diagnosing what was happening on the nation's urban streets, the Kerner Commission was charged with recommending ways to prevent racial unrest from erupting again. Its prescriptions focused on improved housing and jobs for blacks, as well as encouraging more integration between the races.

In testing three of these proposals, Gallup found modest support for one, split views on another and a negative reaction to a third.

  • 54% of Americans thought building factories in poverty-stricken areas with government backing was a good idea; 40% thought it was a poor idea.

  • 47% thought it would be a good idea to have the government provide financial aid to whites and blacks living in poor areas to help them move closer to where job opportunities existed and support them until they could find a job. About as many, 46%, considered this a poor idea.

  • 36% liked the idea of building "entirely new model cities to include both whites and negroes" where job opportunities existed. The majority, 56%, rejected this.

Whites' views of the proposals mirrored the national averages, while blacks were broadly supportive of all three.

A final pair of questions on the poll revealed what may have been the most important gulf of all between whites and blacks -- a significant imbalance in personal feelings toward each other. Whereas 61% of blacks indicated a high regard for "white people," rating them from nine to 10 on a scale where 10 means they are liked "very much," just 19% of whites rated "negroes" this highly. It should be noted that whites were also less likely to have high regard for people of their own race than blacks did for people of theirs, 56% and 84%, respectively.

Whites' and Blacks' Opinions of Each Other as Groups, 1968
Here is an interesting experiment. You notice that the 10 boxes on this card go from the highest position of plus 5 -- for someone you like very much -- all the way down to the lowest position of minus 5 -- for someone you dislike very much. Please tell me how far up the scale or how far down the scale you would rate the following.
Whites Blacks
% %
View of "negroes"
Like very much (9-10) 19 84
Like somewhat (6-8) 53 10
Dislike somewhat (3-5) 12 -
Dislike very much (1-2) 9 -
No opinion 7 6
View of "white people"
Like very much (9-10) 56 61
Like somewhat (6-8) 37 23
Dislike somewhat (3-5) 2 6
Dislike very much (1-2) 1 5
No opinion 5 6
Gallup, May 2-7, 1968
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Read more about Gallup polling on race relations.

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