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Polling Matters
American Attitudes and Race
Polling Matters

American Attitudes and Race

In 1963, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights sent a report to President John F. Kennedy and congressional leaders, concluding: "It is now 100 years since this nation, lagging behind other civilized countries, abolished slavery. Yet today, the descendants of those freed slaves still suffer from customs, traditions and prejudices that should have died with the institution in which they flourished."

Five years later, President Lyndon Johnson's National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders -- commonly known as the Kerner Commission after its chair, Gov. Otto Kerner of Illinois -- issued its report on the causes of and future remedies for the race-related disturbances that had swept the nation during the previous year. The report famously concluded that "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal" and argued that without dramatic action, the nation would see a "continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values."

In June 1997, President Bill Clinton announced a sweeping Initiative on Race, saying: "I ask the American people to join me in a great national effort to perfect the promise of America for this new time as we seek to build our more perfect union. … That is the unfinished work of our time, to lift the burden of race and redeem the promise of America."

Decades prior, in 1939, Dr. George Gallup had included in his surveys a question about race -- as Gallup's Justin McCarthy reported in his review, "the first time Gallup had polled on any issue related to race or racism." The question centered on the controversy surrounding first lady Eleanor Roosevelt's resignation from the Daughters of the American Revolution when that organization refused to let Marian Anderson, a well-known black opera singer, perform in one of its halls. (The majority of Americans, 57%, approved of Roosevelt's resignation, while 28% disapproved and 15% had no opinion.) As Dr. Gallup realized those many years ago, polling provided a uniquely important function by helping put race issues in the context of the attitudes and beliefs of average Americans -- and in particular, those of black Americans.

There is no more important time to provide this context than now, as the nation once again is focused on the implications of the racial divides and racial inequalities that have been a part of this nation's fabric essentially since its founding.

There has indeed been a huge amount of polling on race relations (by Gallup and many other organizations) -- and over the years, the results have been ably collected, analyzed and summarized. In reviewing this research, I come away with three basic conclusions:

  1. Blacks in America today continue to report living a life in which they confront bias and discrimination on almost all fronts.
  2. Americans are no more positive about race relations today than they were in decades past, and in some instances are less positive today.
  3. There is a substantial gap between whites' and blacks' perceptions of the position of blacks in U.S. society.

Black Americans Living a Life of Discrimination and Unequal Opportunity

Data from Gallup and many other survey sources confirm that majorities of black Americans report living a life in which they confront bias, discrimination, fewer opportunities to get ahead and continuing confrontations with prejudice.

I reviewed much of these data last year.

"Only 18% of blacks are satisfied with the way blacks are treated in this country today, compared with 51% of whites who say they are satisfied with the way blacks are treated. Well over half of blacks believe that blacks are treated less favorably than whites in dealing with police, in stores and malls, and on the job. About half of blacks say blacks are treated less favorably in neighborhood shops, in restaurants and in getting healthcare. More than one in five black Americans say that within the last 30 days, they were treated unfairly in stores, in restaurants or by the police. Slightly fewer, but still substantial numbers, say that they have been treated unfairly at work or in receiving healthcare. A slight majority of blacks are pessimistic about the future, saying that relations between blacks and whites will always be a problem in this country."

Pew Research found similar results in their report on race attitudes last year. Over eight in 10 blacks in their study said blacks are treated less fairly than whites by the criminal justice system, in dealing with police, and in hiring, pay and promotions. Seven in 10 or more said they were treated less fairly when applying for a loan or mortgage and while in stores and restaurants. Pew's research also found 60% to 65% of blacks saying that because of their race, people had acted like they were suspicious of them or acted like they thought they were not smart. And a recent Pew study found that 83% of blacks said they had experienced discrimination or been treated unfairly because of their race or ethnicity.

Of particular relevance given recent events are the findings showing that black Americans report unequal and discriminatory treatment by police. Specifically, 77% of blacks in Gallup's 2018 poll said that blacks are treated less fairly than whites by police, and 21% reported being treated unfairly by police within the past 30 days.

There have been recent updates. A CBS News poll conducted in late May and early June showed that 83% of blacks say police are more likely to use deadly force against blacks than against whites, and that 44% of blacks say police in their community make them feel "mostly anxious" rather than "mostly safe." The recent Pew Research poll showed that 45% of blacks report having been unfairly stopped by police because of their race or ethnicity.

A recent Monmouth University survey showed that 87% of blacks believe police are more likely to use excessive force if the culprit is black -- and that just 21% of blacks are "very satisfied" with their local police department, compared with 45% of whites. In terms of personal experience, 44% of blacks say they or an immediate family member have been harassed by police, compared with 24% of whites. (Interestingly, more blacks than whites in the Monmouth poll -- 41 vs. 33%, respectively -- said that police have helped keep them safe during a potentially dangerous situation.)

Broad Attitudes on Race Have Become More Negative

Americans' perceptions of the race situation in U.S. society have not improved over recent decades, and in many instances have become more negative.

There were high expectations for race relations at the beginning of the Barack Obama administration, with over two-thirds of Americans saying that his election was either the most important or among the two or three most important advances for blacks in the past 100 years. But, by the end of his administration, attitudes on race had soured rather than improved.

As Gallup's Mohamed Younis wrote last year:

"Since 2013, Americans' overall positive perceptions on race have cooled, and perceptions among blacks have soured considerably. This period of decline has witnessed high-profile police shooting incidents involving black citizens, a neo-Nazi rally and ensuing violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and racially charged attacks on a black house of worship in Charleston, South Carolina. All of these events captured the national attention and have kept the challenge of race relations at the forefront of Americans' minds."

And certainly, matters have not improved in the first few years of the Trump administration. All surveys with which I am familiar show low marks for President Donald Trump on his handling of race relations, and Trump's job approval rating among blacks remains below the 20% level.

In 2018, about half of Americans rated relations between whites and blacks as "good," representing a major drop from as high as 70% or more who previously had rated relations as good. And in 2019, 40% of Americans said they worried "a great deal" about race relations, following several high-profile cases involving police officers shooting unarmed black men and several instances of white police officers being targeted by blacks. That figure had increased significantly from 13% in 2010. (The percentage of Americans worried about race relations in this year's March update, prior to recent events, had dropped to 31%.)

Several Gallup trends reflect increasing negativity in blacks' attitudes over the years. Slightly over half of blacks agreed in 1995 that blacks had as good a chance as whites to get any job they wanted; by 2018, that figure had dropped to 30%. That same year, four in 10 blacks agreed that they had equal housing opportunities, the lowest in Gallup's trend. And blacks' views of being treated fairly at work, while shopping, at restaurants and bars, and by police are the lowest Gallup has measured. On the other hand, most of the self-reported incidents of being treated unfairly within the past 30 days are similar to what they were in 1997 when these measures were instituted.

Not all trends have turned negative. Among the general population, there have been long-term changes in two basic attitudes on race. The percentage of Americans who say they would vote for an otherwise well-qualified person for president who happened to be black has risen to 96%, up from 38% in 1958. And the percentage of Americans who approve of marriages between blacks and whites moved from 48% in 1965 to 87% the last time Gallup updated the measure in 2013.

Whites Describe a Different Reality Than Blacks

Gallup has frequently asked whites to answer the same questions about racial discrimination that are asked of blacks, and the results uniformly show that whites are much less likely to perceive bias and discrimination against blacks than is the case among blacks themselves. In short, white and black Americans perceive the world through separate lenses, with blacks describing a much more challenging set of experiences than what whites perceive.

For example, 30% of blacks versus 67% of whites perceive that blacks have as good a chance as whites to get any kind of job for which they are qualified, and we see similar differences in views of housing and education. Whites and blacks differ as well on views of blacks being treated less fairly at work, while shopping, at bars and restaurants, in getting healthcare, and in dealing with police. A little more than half of whites are satisfied with the way blacks are treated in society, but only 18% of blacks agree. Fifty-four percent of whites say that relations between whites and blacks are good, compared with 40% of blacks.

Additionally, Gallup's June update shows that whites (15%) are much less likely than blacks (45%) to name race relations as the most important problem facing the nation.

Bottom Line

There have been many, many new programs, agencies and commissions focused on the race issue over the years since the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Yet our survey data tell us that many of the same problems identified decades ago are still with us, and that black Americans remain in a situation they define as starkly less equal than the one facing whites.

It is one thing, of course, to document the negative ways in which blacks in America today perceive the challenges they face in their daily lives. It is another to figure out what should be done about it.

The data show that black Americans want the federal government to be involved and that they think new laws and policies addressing race issues are needed. As I summarized last year:

"Black Americans also clearly believe that government actions should be taken to help bring about change. Over seven in 10 blacks favor affirmative action programs for racial minorities in this country, and a majority of 57% of whites agree. Previous Gallup research has shown that about two-thirds of black Americans believe the U.S. government should play a major role in trying to improve the social and economic position of blacks and other minority groups in this country. Over seven in 10 blacks believe that new civil rights laws are needed in this country to reduce discrimination against blacks."

Additionally, most polls I've reviewed show that a majority of blacks support the concept of reparations, with variation in that level of support depending on how the question is asked. (Wording is important because the concept of reparations has many definitions and implications, depending on who is proposing it.) The most recent national survey I'm aware of, conducted by the Associated Press/NORC last fall, found that 74% of blacks agreed that the U.S. federal government should "pay reparations for slavery and racial discrimination in this country by making cash payments to the descendants of enslaved people." (Only 15% of whites agreed.)

Certainly, ending police brutality and unwarranted targeting of blacks is a legal imperative, and there is a clear need for broader societal recognition of the systemic racism in U.S. society reported by blacks for generations. There has been some uptick in Gallup's data in the percentage of whites who perceive that blacks are treated less fairly at work, while shopping, at bars and restaurants, in getting healthcare, and in dealing with police -- although most of these percentages were still low in Gallup's latest update two years ago. Recent polling conducted by other firms shows significant increases in whites' perceptions that racism and discrimination represent a big problem for the country and that blacks are treated unfairly.

Overall, as is the case with most pressing social and economic issues, there is a clear need for leadership on race in the U.S., as there has been for the hundreds of years in which race has been a defining American Dilemma. There are calls for renewed "get out the vote" efforts at the local and national levels, with the hope that new leaders will be able to bring about lasting change. Additionally, the seeming seriousness with which Americans of all races have reacted to the latest incidents of police brutality against blacks may signal that this time the situation is different -- and that as a result, the nation may see more significant progress in addressing the nation's race-related challenges going forward. Future Gallup updates of core race relations trend questions will be important indicators of the degree to which recent events have or have not had an unprecedented impact on Americans' views on race.


Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup Senior Scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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