May 21, 2009

Independents Take Center Stage in Obama Era

Section 5: Social and Political Attitudes About Race

Just months after the nation’s first African American president took the oath of office, many Americans see a society making progress in its dealings with race. Still, deep racial and political divisions remain in assessments of the gravity of the problems and how best to address them. And in most cases, attitudes have not changed dramatically since 2007.

The public does take a more positive view of black progress than it did two years ago. Currently, 31% agree that: “In the past few years there hasn’t been much real improvement in the position of black people in this country.” Nearly twice as many (61%) disagree with this statement. In 2007, opinion about black progress was more closely divided: 41% said there had been little real improvement in blacks’ fortunes, while 49% disagreed.

There have been declines in the percentages of both non-Hispanic African Americans and whites who say blacks have made little progress. As in the past, however, far more African Americans than whites believe there has been little improvement in the position of blacks in the United States.

Slightly more than a third of Americans (36%) agree that “discrimination against blacks is rare,” while 58% disagree. There has been little change in these opinions since 2007, though over the last decade the proportion seeing discrimination as rare has increased by more than a third, from 22% in 1999 to 36% currently. In contrast to views of black progress, there are only modest racial differences in opinions about the prevalence of discrimination.

Roughly three-in-ten Americans (31%) say that society “should make every possible effort to improve the position of blacks and minorities, even if it means giving them preferential treatment.” More than twice as many (65%) disagree. There continue to be wide racial and political divisions over the use of preferential treatment to help spur minority progress.

Similarly, blacks and whites differ over whether “we have gone too far in pushing equal rights in this country.” Overall, 41% agree with this statement, compared with 56% who disagree. The proportion saying the nation has gone too far in pushing equal rights has declined since 2002 (from 49%). Yet underscoring the long-term stability in many of these attitudes, about as many express this view today as did so in the first values survey in 1987 (42% agree).

The public remains far more unified in support of the principle of equal opportunity for all. Nearly nine-in-ten (87%) agree that: “Our society should do what is necessary to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.” The share agreeing with this statement has varied little over the past 22 years. Even here, however, far more blacks (59%) than whites (44%) completely agree that society should take needed measures to ensure equal opportunity for everyone.

Public acceptance of interracial dating has leveled off after steadily increasing through most of the past two decades. Currently, 83% say they think “it’s all right for blacks and whites to date,” which is unchanged since 2007. However, the proportion completely agreeing that it is appropriate for blacks and whites to date has continued to rise – from 47% in 2003 to 51% in 2007 to 56% currently. In the first values survey in 1987, fewer than half (48%) agreed that interracial dating was acceptable, with just 13% completely agreeing.

Perceptions of Black Progress

The share saying that there has not been much improvement in the position of black people is down 10 points from two years ago to 31%. But the divide in perceptions between blacks and whites on this question remains nearly as wide as it was in 2007.

Currently, 58% of blacks say they have seen little improvement in the position of African Americans in recent years, down from 69% in 2007. Among whites, 26% agree with this statement, a drop of eight points from 34% two years ago. Today, 40% of Hispanics say that there has been little recent improvement in the position of black people, down slightly from 49% in 2007.

Only about one-in-five Republicans (21%) say there has been little improvement in the position of African Americans in recent years; that compares with 29% of independents and 43% of Democrats. White and black Democrats differ over the extent of black progress: only about a third of white Democrats (34%) say there has been little improvement in the position of blacks compared with 59% of black Democrats.

Opinions about whether blacks face widespread discrimination are less divided along racial and partisan lines. Currently, 35% of whites and 30% of blacks agree that discrimination is rare; large majorities of both whites (59%) and blacks (66%) disagree – though about twice as many blacks completely disagree that discrimination is rare (30% vs. 14% of whites).

About four-in-ten Republicans (42%) agree that discrimination against blacks is rare today, compared with 31% of Democrats and 37% of independents. In the past decade, the share of Republicans that agrees with this statement has increased 14 points from 28%. Over the same period, the share of independents who believe discrimination against blacks is rare has risen 16 points, while the share of Democrats has increased 10 points.

Preferential Treatment for Minorities

Most Americans continue to reject the use of preferential treatment as a way to improve the position of blacks and other minorities. And the substantial gap between blacks and whites over this issue has remained relatively constant in recent years.

Close to six-in-ten African Americans (58%) agree that the country should make every effort to improve the position of minorities, even if means giving them preferential treatment, compared with 22% of whites. About half of Hispanics (53%) agree that every effort should be made to boost the position of minorities.

There continues to be a wide partisan divide in opinions about preferential treatment for minorities, with more than three times as many Democrats (45%) as Republicans (13%) favoring this approach. About a quarter of independents (28%) agree that every effort should be made to improve the lot of minorities, including giving them preferential treatment.

Notably, the partisan gap is still sizable even among white Democrats and Republicans. In the current survey, nearly three times as many white Democrats (32%) as white Republicans (11%) agree that every effort should be made to improve the position of minorities, including giving them preferential treatment. This gap has fluctuated somewhat in recent years, but over the last 15 years, white Democrats have consistently been two- to three-times as likely as white Republicans to favor preferential treatment to improve the position of minorities.

More young people than older Americans continue to say that every effort should be made to improve the position of minorities. More than four-in-ten (44%) of those younger than 30 favor making every effort to improve the position of minorities. That compares with 25% to 30% in each older age group.

Support for Interracial Dating

Two decades ago, Americans were deeply divided over interracial dating. Now, 83% say they agree that “it’s all right for blacks and whites to date each other,” unchanged from 2007. There has been a steady rise in the percentage that completely agrees that interracial dating is acceptable, from 51% in 2007 to 56% currently.

Support for interracial dating among African Americans remains overwhelming: 94% say it is all right for blacks and whites to date, which is little changed from recent values surveys. Whites’ views also have remained stable – 79% agree it is all right for blacks and whites to date each other. More blacks (64%) than whites (52%) completely agree that interracial dating is acceptable.

Long-term trends in opinions about interracial dating show the strongest support among the youngest age cohorts. An analysis of the current survey shows that is still the case, though the oldest age groups – the Silent Generation and Baby Boomers – have grown increasingly supportive over time. However, as in overall views of black-white dating, there has been little change within age cohorts since 2007.

While whites generally are far more tolerant of interracial dating than in the late 1980s, the shift has been particularly striking among white Southerners. The proportion of white Southerners who believe interracial dating is appropriate has more than doubled over the past two decades (from 30% to 69%). Even with this increase, however, the share of whites approving of interracial dating is far lower in the South (69%) than elsewhere in the country (84%).