September 18. 2020

America is again facing another period of racial tensions brought on by the killing of George Floyd and the continued prejudice against blacks around the country.

These recent events begs the question as to whether whites have changed their attitudes toward black Americans over the past several years, or are their attitudes still stuck primarily in a racial past?

In search of an answer to this question, I have found a time series of questions concerning white voters opinions on black Americans (General Social Surveys).

These are considered social attitude questions that don’t come out and overtly ask respondents if they are prejudiced against blacks. But they do reveal underlying attitudes about white’s opinions of blacks.

This first chart above tracks all white voters from 1977 through 2018 on whether they see racial differences are due to a lack of will to correct. As the chart shows, White voters opinions do decline on this issue over the next 41 years, from 65% to 35%. This is positive.

The graph above breaks down the responses of this question by party. Although all three groups started out in 1977 with similar opinions, in 2008 Democrats’ took a relatively steep decline from 48% to 26% and Republicans percent spiked upward from 48% to 60%. If you are wondering, this was the year Barack Obama was first elected to the Presidency.

When it comes to racial discrimination, Democratic opinions stayed fairly constant from 1977 to 2014 at 40% agreement that racial differences were due to discrimination. Republican attitudes on racial differences caused by discrimination declined until 2014, when it increased by 8%. With the reelection of Obama in 2014, Republican responses switched to more yes responses, increasing from 18% to 26%. Interestingly, Republican opinions did not decline again after the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

With the reelection of Barack Obama in 2014, both parties attitudes were affected, but with a majority of Democrats now agreeing that racial differences were based on discrimination. Republicans, however, are still less convinced that this is the case.

When it comes to Blacks overcoming prejudice without favors, about half of Republicans agree with this position. Again, there is a decline in support of this statement since the reelection of Obama. That is a positive sign.

Democrats dropped 20% on this position since 1977, with most the most significant decrease after the reelection of Obama as well, with only 20% now agreeing with this statement. It is apparent there is some recent acceptance that Blacks need some help, due to previous discrimination. But not all Democrats are on board yet with this view.

A majority of Republican voters, until recently, have opposed this idea. But there maybe some softening on their position since Obama.

Perhaps the most telling graph in this series is on the question of how (very) close Whites feel toward Blacks. Like most of these questions, it is worded in an ambiguous way, intentionally.

The trend is the same as in other graphs, where Democrats are more likely to have this position than either Republicans and Independents. But even a majority of Democrats don’t feel very close to Blacks.

This underlying issue stems from the physical and emotional distance between the two races. Yes, we often work together and occasionally intermingle at cocktail parties and increasingly, live in many of the same neighborhoods. But there is still an emotional distance.

Attitudes of White Americans toward Black’s have improved in America. Schools are now desegregated as well as neighborhoods. Educational opportunities have opened up for Blacks as well.

Yes, the America of the 1970’s no longer exists and overt racism has been relegated to the dark corners of fringe groups. But racial bias still exists.

Racial bias is based on beliefs, such as believing people of color are more likely to commit a crime. That’s a racial bias. Calling 911 because a black man is in the neighborhood even though that man is acting lawfully, is racism. It is the action taken because of a bias that makes it different. Both are pernicious, but racism is far more dangerous.

Finally, the fact that both Republicans and Democrats increased their positive (racial) responses after the reelection of Barack Obama, is an encouraging sign. He managed to reshape the stereotype of Black men and this is supported by how opinions on both sides of the political spectrum changed during his Presidency.

My Mother always said that becoming familiar with a person from another country, often improves your opinion of that country as well. This advice also applies to black and white relationships. Familiarity with an individual of another race often changes a person’s impressions of that race as well. Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt, no matter what Chaucer said. Be safe…

By Jim Kane

Jim Kane is a pollster and media advisor, and was for fifteen years an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Kane is founder of the polling firm USAPoll and served as the Director of the Florida Voter Poll. His political clients have included both Republican and Democratic candidates, including the Republican Party of Florida, and both the Sun-Sentinel and Orlando Sentinel newspapers. At the University of Florida, Professor Kane taught graduate level courses in political science on Survey Research, Lobbying and Special Interest Groups in America, Political Campaigning, and Political Behavior. In addition to his professional and academic career, Jim Kane has been actively involved in local and state policy decisions. He was elected to the Broward County Soil and Water Conservation Board (1978-1982) and the Port Everglades Authority (1988-1994). Kane also served as an appointed member of the Broward County Planning Council (1995-2003), Broward County Management Review Committee (Chair, 1990-1991), Broward County Consumer Protection Board (1976-1982), and the Broward County School Board Consultants Review Committee (1986-1990).

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