In the United States there are two dominant narratives of race relations. One narrative focuses on racial progress, embodied by the election of Barack Obama, and sees us moving toward more racial harmony or even the vaunted “post-racial” moment. The other more pessimistic narrative focuses on the stagnation of racial progress over the last two decades, including growing hostility toward affirmative action and compensatory policies among the white majority, the stalled progress of war on poverty programs, legal discrimination (think Henry Louis Gates), and a growing political and geographic polarization that has fragmented and undermined integrated cities and resulted in white flight.
So which narrative captures the racial attitudes of most Americans? In a recent paper, Lawrence Bobo and colleagues analyze data on racial attitudes and preferences among both blacks and whites (and more recently Hispanics) from the General Social Survey starting in 1972. The answers are surprising in several ways.
Racial Attitudes and Racial Policies
First, the early 1970s, the era of race riots in large American cities and politicized opposition to the civil rights movements, social attitudes toward blacks among whites were generally positive. In the early 1970s, white Americans disavowed any overt form of discrimination and believed in equal access to jobs and other opportunities. Even in the American south, only a small minority of whites thought that whites should have a first chance at jobs, and less than a third of southerners felt that blacks should go to separate schools. Whites in the early 1970s also felt relatively low levels of social distance to blacks – less than half said that they objected to black neighbors, to a black dinner guest, or to a school with mostly blacks. However, white racial attitudes were strongly negative against school busing (86%), forced non-discrimination in housing sales (64%), and a majority of whites believed that “blacks shouldn’t push” where they were not wanted. As the authors summarize “Despite broad acceptance of principles of equality, then, whites were reluctant to endorse actions challenging the status quo.”
Second, whites have become substantially more accepting of ideas such as racial intermarriage over time, and more likely to report that they feel equally close to blacks and whites, but not more likely to desire racial diversity in other arenas. More than two thirds of whites in the 1970s reported that they were not comfortable with the idea of a close family member marrying a black person, but that number had dropped to less than 40% by 2007. The proportion of whites saying that they would object to sending their children to a half or mostly black school has remained constant since the early 1970s, and the openness to living in a neighborhood where half the residents are not of the same race has also remained fairly constant for whites since the 1990s (the earliest that the question was asked).
Third, whites are not growing more accepting of policies to help minorities. Close 60% of respondents in all years say that, “the government should not be giving special treatment to blacks.” Whites also remain skeptical of affirmative action and likely to believe that it will not help their racial group – these attitudes have scarcely changed since the 1990s. Although whites are less likely over time to explain lower rates of black achievement in terms of laziness or intelligence (more than 60% endorsed these ideas in the early 1990s, compared to less than 50% today), whites are also less likely to claim that blacks suffer from discrimination compared to early time periods.
What about blacks? Not surprisingly, blacks are very unlikely at any point in time to agree that there should be laws that can discriminate against intermarriage, keep schools separate, or allow for discriminatory home sales. However, blacks are actually less likely to believe that the government holds an obligation to help blacks for previous discrimination over time, and are less likely to endorse racial preferences in the workplace for blacks over whites (40% opposed in 1994 compared to more than 50% in 2008).
The Future of Race Relations
What does all this mean? For one thing it means that the relationship between racial attitudes, and policy preferences is far from straightforward. In thinking about race, white Americans seem to hold more favorable attitudes toward blacks, but are not growing more likely to favor policies that help minorities. While overtly discriminatory attitudes have faded, the authors also caution that whites still maintain strong sense of social distance: “despite accepting integration as a general principle and a small minority presence in schools, neighborhoods or other public social spaces, whites express strong social distance preferences; indeed, a racial hierarchy of association remains, with African Americans at or near its bottom.” The findings for blacks are equally important – and suggest that blacks are shifting their understanding of racial inequality away from more structural ideas to more cultural ones (the Bill Cosby picture of the world).
Against this backdrop, Barack Obama’s presidency may be more an outlier than a portent of inevitable racial thawing. Efforts to advance racial equality will continue to be more popular when framed in terms of incremental and targeted inclusion – for example, this study suggests that there is still widespread public skepticism about the value and fairness of affirmative action policies. A future set of policies both in synch with public opinion, and responsive to the complex realities of racial inequality in the United States, is yet to be developed.