Deep Divisions in Views of America’s Racial History
Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to say increased attention to the history of slavery and racism is bad for the country
Nine in 10 Americans say that progress has been made toward racial equality in the past half-century, but they are deeply divided—along both racial and political lines—over how much more needs to be done and whether fundamental changes in laws and institutions are required.
An extensive study released in August by the Pew Research Center, based on a survey of 10,221 adults, found that half of U.S. adults (53%) see as a good thing for society the increased attention paid to the history of slavery and racism in the wake of the George Floyd murder and the 2020 summer of protest.
But the racial and ethnic disparities in respondents’ views were striking. The overwhelming majority of Black Americans (75%) believe this greater focus on racial inequality is positive, while less than half of White Amerians (46%) agree. Majorities of Asian Americans (64%) and Hispanics (59%) see the attention as a positive development.
The political divide on this question is even starker, with only one-quarter of Republicans (25%) saying that heightened attention to race is positive, compared with three-quarters (78%) of Democrats. When researchers went a step further and asked whether “a lot more” still needs to be done in the area of racial equality, just 22% of Republicans, compared with 74% of Democrats, said yes.
Much of the opinion difference appears to stem from divergent views on how far the nation has come in dealing with racial inequality. “More Whites and more Republicans say that a lot of progress has been made, and so they say that we don’t need to do a lot more going forward,” says Carroll Doherty, director of political research for the Center and co-author of the report.
Although there is near unanimity among the survey respondents that progress has been made over a half-century, only 19% of Black Americans see that progress as substantial. That contrasts with a clear majority of White Americans (56%) who say things have changed a lot for the better.
The one-half of Americans who say a lot more needs to be done are themselves divided over what it will take, the report says. About one-quarter of all adults (24%) say needed changes can be made while working within the system. Another 25% say, however, that U.S. laws and major institutions are so fundamentally biased against some racial and ethnic groups that they need to be completely rebuilt.
Almost 6 in 10 Black respondents (58%) say fundamental change in society is required, compared with 18% of White respondents, 30% of Hispanics, and 24% of Asian Americans.
The split by political party is even more dramatic, with only 7% of Republicans saying that laws and institutions need to be overhauled, compared with 40% of Democrats.
“Democrats really don’t differ over the question about focusing greater attention on the history of slavery and racism in this country,” Doherty says. “They are pretty unified on that. Where Democrats disagree is on what needs to be done. When we asked if this required system change or if it could be done within the system, Democrats were divided.”
William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has analyzed the Center poll, says it contains a warning to political activists on the left who are calling for radical social change. Most Americans are not with them in this, he says.
“Only about one-quarter of the public believes that radical change is needed,” Galston says. “Although the voices of that one-quarter have been the loudest in the last year—and in some respects for the last five or six years—they are not the majority. They’re not even a majority of the people who say a lot remains to be done. There is only limited public support for changes that many people see as going too far.”
Besides race and political alignment, age and education are strong variables that influence opinion in the survey, with younger people and better-educated people in both parties much more likely to see the need for change in the country’s race relations.
“Young people are much more accepting of increased public attention to the history of slavery and racism, and 37% of them believe that laws and institutions need to be rebuilt,” Doherty says. “Among people age 65 and older, it’s only 16%.” And belief that more attention to racial disparities is needed goes up with increasing levels of schooling. Overall, 61% of college-educated people surveyed said that increased attention to the history of slavery and racism is a good thing, compared with 49% of those without a college degree.
On one of the most contentious debates of the past year—the question of whether White Americans have societal advantages that Black people do not have—the survey finds that 57% say that Whites benefit “a great deal” or “a fair amount” from the color of their skin. Again, the findings vary by race and ethnicity, with 92% of Black Americans, 73% of Asian Americans, 70% of Hispanics, and 47% of Whites seeing an advantage for White people.
“We’ve asked this question about White advantage every year for the last five years,” Doherty says. “It’s essentially a question about White privilege. We see growth overall in the percentage of Americans who say that Whites do benefit from societal advantages. But that growth is only among Democrats. Between 2019 and 2020, there was a 7-point increase in the share of Democrats who said White people have advantages Black people lack.”
Republicans, on the other hand, “haven’t moved at all on this issue,” Doherty says. Among White Republicans, 78% say White Americans have little or no advantage over Black Americans.
But demographic changes within the ranks of the GOP may alter the racial views of Republicans over the next generation, Galston says. He cited a poll finding that 42% of Republicans under age 30 endorse putting greater societal focus on the history of slavery and racism. That compares with 18% of GOP seniors.
In a similar way, the growing attraction of Hispanics to the Republican Party, as evidenced in the 2020 election, could lead to changing GOP racial attitudes over time, Galston says. He notes a poll finding that 46% of Hispanic Republicans, compared with 20% of White Republicans, accept the notion of White privilege.
“This is a very difficult transition period for older White Americans, particularly those without a college degree,” Galston says. “As they gradually fade from the scene and are replaced by younger Republicans and others with more moderate racial attitudes,” he notes, Republicans’ views on racial issues may change.
The people who gave their opinions for the poll are enrolled in Pew’s American Trends Panel, which represents a cross-section of the nation. Panel participants have agreed to be surveyed periodically by email for ongoing Center research.
Researchers have used the panel to track opinion changes on a range of important questions, but this survey marked the first time that panelists have been asked whether the problem of racial inequity was so intransigent that fundamental change to laws and institutions is needed. Doherty says Center researchers wanted to capture Americans’ views after the social upheaval following the Floyd murder and other inflammatory incidents of the past year.
“All of that has focused the nation’s attention on racial disparity, especially in policing and what should be taught in schools,” he says. “It’s all led to a big rethinking in America about race.”
Tom Infield is a frequent contributor to Trust.
This article was previously published on pewresearch.org and appears in this issue of Trust Magazine.
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