November 5, 2003

The 2004 Political Landscape

Part 5: Social and Political Attitudes about Race

The issue of race continues to divide Americans and play an important role in politics, as it has since the nation’s founding. Since 1987, Americans, ­both black and white, ­ have become much more personally tolerant. The idea of blacks and whites dating, once highly divisive, is now broadly accepted. There also has been a steady decline in the number of Americans who say they have little in common with people of other races.

By contrast, there has been little change in the public’s perception of the extent of racial discrimination and how it should be dealt with. And whites and blacks continue to be divided on these questions. While there is overwhelming agreement that society should do everything necessary to ensure equal opportunity for all, most Americans continue to reject giving preferential treatment to blacks and other minorities.

The shift in opinion on interracial dating has been dramatic. In the late 1980s, only about half of the public agreed with the statement: “I think it’s all right for blacks and whites to date each other.” Today, over three-quarters agree (77%), with increases in support coming in all major demographic and political groups. Similarly, in 1988 a quarter of Americans said they had little in common with people of other races; today, just 13% say that.

Yet on questions relating to the pace of progress in civil rights and affirmative action, there has been far less movement in public opinion. By more than two-to-one (67%-30%), Americans reject this statement: “We should make every possible effort to improve the position of blacks and other minorities, even if it means giving them preferential treatment.” Opinion on that value has varied very little since 1987. And more than four-in-ten (43%) believe the nation has gone too far in pushing civil rights. Opinion on that issue has fluctuated in recent years, but a decade ago, the same percentage felt the nation had gone too far in pushing civil rights.

Opinions in Black and White

On most issues relating to race, the gap in opinion between white and black Americans remains substantial. Nearly half of whites (46%) continue to believe that efforts to promote equal rights have gone too far, compared with about a quarter of African Americans (26%). Similarly, far more African Americans than whites say there has been no real improvement in the conditions of blacks in this country (61% vs. 31%).

But there is little difference between the races in the view that discrimination is rare today; both blacks and whites reject this notion. And while roughly nine-in-ten African Americans (93%) say it is all right for blacks and whites to date, nearly three-quarters of whites (73%) agree. In the first years of the Center values surveys (1987-1990), roughly three-quarters of blacks and fewer than half of whites endorsed interracial dating.

The races remain deeply divided over affirmative action. But African Americans have become somewhat less supportive of making every effort to improve the position of blacks and other minorities, if that means according them preferential treatment. A 55% majority of African Americans express that view, down from about two-thirds in the early values surveys. Consequently, the black-white gap over that issue, once as large as 51 points, has decreased to 31 points.

Partisan Differences ­ More Over Policy

Partisan differences in racial attitudes also center on government and societal efforts to promote racial equality. More than twice as many Democrats as Republicans believe every effort should be made to improve the position of blacks and other minorities, even if that means according them preferential treatment (42% vs. 16%).

Similarly, a majority of Republicans (54%) feel the nation has gone too far in pushing equal rights, compared with about a third of Democrats (32%). The gap on both these values, while consistently large, has grown somewhat since the late 1980s. Moreover, these differences are nearly as large among white Democrats and Republicans as they are among all partisans regardless of race.

Today only about a third of white Democrats (34%) say the nation has gone too far in pushing equal rights; 55% of white Republicans believe this. The gap between these groups was as small as 10 points in 1991, but grew throughout the 1990s and is now larger than at any time in the 16-year series of surveys.

And white Democrats are more likely than white Republicans to completely agree that we should do what is necessary to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed; this gap is also bigger now than in the 1980s.

Yet on questions of tolerance, the differences between the parties ­ like those between the races ­ are much smaller. Fewer than one-in-five in both parties say they have little in common with people of other races (14% of Democrats, 13% of Republicans). And members of both parties have become far more accepting of interracial dating (79% of Democrats, 72% of Republicans).

Generations Divide Over Race

Age is a major factor in racial attitudes. Not only has there been a persistent generation gap in views of interracial dating, but changing attitudes across generations have resulted in a dramatic shift in overall opinion.

Succeeding generations of young people are moving into adulthood with more tolerant attitudes toward interracial dating than the age cohorts that preceded them. For example, among members of so-called “Generation Y” ­ the successors to Generation X who were born after 1976 ­ there is almost universal acceptance of interracial dating (91%).

A large majority of those in Generation X (85%) ­ born between 1965 and 1976 ­ agree. But 16 years ago, when Generation X was about the same age as Generation Y is today, just 64% of them felt this way. All age cohorts have become more tolerant on this question over time. In surveys conducted in 1987 and 1988, only about a quarter (26%) of the oldest generation (those born prior to 1918) approved of interracial dating. Now solid majorities of all age groups, except those who are now in their late 70s and 80s, agree. And even among this group (born 1913-1927), 49% accept blacks and whites dating.

But a different pattern emerges on questions relating to equal rights and affirmative action. On the issue of whether the nation has gone too far in pushing equal rights, Generation Y holds the same opinion as Generation X did in 1987-1988 ­ 34% of each believe the nation is going too far. Since then, however, a growing percentage in Generation X has come to believe that we are going too far in pushing equal rights (34% then, 42% now).

The youngest Americans stand out for their broad support of racial preferences ­ 48% of those in Generation Y believe every effort should be made to improve the position of blacks and other minorities, even if it means giving them preferential treatment. That is far higher than any other age group, and well more than the percentage of Generation X that expressed this opinion in 1987-1988 (36%). Over the past 16 years, members of Generation X have moved much closer to older generations on this issue. Currently, just three-in-ten in that group believe every effort should be made to improve the lot of minorities, even if it means preferential treatment.

South’s Still Different

The South remains a more conservative region on racial issues, but the differences between the South and rest of the country are narrowing. Over the past generation, a declining percentage of Southern whites view discrimination as rare and fewer say they have little in common with people of other races, decreasing or eliminating the regional gap on these questions.

And there is only a modest, eight-point gap between white Southerners and non-Southerners over whether the nation has gone too far in pushing equal rights (57% vs. 49%). That is far less than the differences between Republicans and Democrats, or blacks and whites, over this issue.

Southern whites also are much more accepting of interracial dating than they were in the late 1980s. Six-in-ten Southern whites are open to this, compared with 78% of whites living in other regions of the country. Because the shift in sentiment has been the same in the South as elsewhere, the gap between the regions has remained unchanged.

On a few values, the regional differences have not been confined to whites only; Southern blacks also have held somewhat more conservative views than blacks elsewhere. As with whites, one of the biggest differences was on approval of interracial dating. In 1987-1988, Southern blacks were 28 percentage points less likely than those living outside the South to approve of blacks and whites dating. Now the gap is only five points (89% Southern blacks vs. 94% of blacks elsewhere).

Majorities of blacks in the South and non-South support racial preferences to improve the position of blacks, though approval has declined among both groups since the 1980s and the gap between them has vanished. In 1987-1988, 69% of blacks outside the South supported preferences, while 62% in the South did so. Now, 55% of both groups are favorable toward racial preferences.

Southern blacks have diverged from African Americans in other parts of the country on one question, however. In the 1980s, only about one-fifth of both groups believed that discrimination against blacks was rare (19% in the South, 21% elsewhere). Now, 31% of Southern blacks but only 20% of blacks outside the South say discrimination is rare.