Coming together and pulling apart.
American race relations appear to be moving in both directions at once as the nation hurtles through its greatest demographic transformation since the melting-pot era a century ago.
That’s the overriding message of the initial University of Phoenix/National Journal Next America Poll, the first in a series of surveys of attitudes toward the demographic change that has swelled the minority share of the population past 36 percent (up from about 20 percent in 1980) and reshaped communities, schools, and workplaces around the country.
From one direction, the poll captures widespread daily interaction among Americans of different races and ethnicities. In the survey, a majority of whites, African-Americans, and Hispanics say that either “a lot” or “some” of their neighbors are from different racial or ethnic backgrounds than their own. Majorities in each group say the same thing about their friends. Among young people, the change is even more pronounced: Only a third of adults under 30 say they have “just a few” or “no” friends of other races.
Two-thirds of Americans with interracial friendships say they have more friends of different races than their parents did; that includes solid majorities of whites, African-Americans, and Hispanics. “Racial prejudice was just pounded into me growing up,” said Henry Jones, a retired electrician in Oklahoma City who is white and responded to the survey. “These kids today, they don’t see race.” Cecil Moore, an African-American public employee in Stone Mountain, Ga., agrees. “I grew up in the rural South; opportunities were very limited,” he said. “I never knew an African-American lawyer or doctor. The most successful black person I knew was a teacher…. There’s a long way to go, but it’s definitely better than it used to be.”
The survey found other points of convergence. Among whites and Hispanics, more people think that race relations are improving than deteriorating, and African-Americans tilt only relatively narrowly in the opposite direction. With one important exception, the three groups largely agree on the causes of the economic gaps between whites and minorities, and also on what can be done to close them. All three groups even generally agree that whites and minorities don’t receive equal treatment from law enforcement (although that belief is more broadly shared among minorities than whites).
The poll also pinpoints enduring fissures, however. On many issues, whites and African-Americans, in particular, express conflicting views, with the rapidly growing Hispanic population often taking positions in between but usually closer to blacks than to whites. These gaps are deepest on questions relating to the persistence of racial prejudice; the role of government in protecting rights for minorities and providing a safety net for the needy; and the opportunities available for the next generation.
As other surveys have done, the Next America Poll found whites much more unsure than minorities about whether the demographic transformation will improve or diminish American life.
Whites and nonwhites hold sharply contrasting views about President Obama’s performance and the choice this November between the Democratic incumbent and Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee. Indeed, the poll points toward another election likely to divide the nation on racial lines. In 2008, Obama became the first nominee in either party ever to lose white voters by double digits and still win the White House, after capturing 80 percent of the nonwhite vote.
The Next America Poll, like a succession of other public surveys this year, suggests that Obama could again lose whites by a resounding margin—and still win a second term because of overwhelming support from the growing minority population. Such a stark divergence between the political preferences of most whites and most minorities could itself become a heightening source of social strain in the years ahead. “There is tension with older generations,” said Donna Matthews, an African-American sales and marketing executive in Willingboro, N.J., who responded to the survey. “I think it’s sparked by Obama. Caucasians are used to being in power. I think it scares people.”
The University of Phoenix/National Journal Next America Poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates from April 5-11, interviewed 1,308 adults on landlines and cell phones in both English and Spanish. The survey over-sampled African-American and Hispanic adults to allow for more-detailed explanation of their views. In calculating the overall results, the poll used a weighting procedure to correct for this over-sampling and ensure that these groups represent their proper proportions of the population. The margin of sampling error for the complete set of weighted data is plus or minus 3.6 percentage points. The sampling error is plus or minus 4.7 percentage points for non-Hispanic whites, 7.8 percentage points for African-Americans, and 8.3 percentage points for Hispanics.
In the months ahead, the Next America polls will measure the responses of whites and minorities to many dimensions of the economic, cultural, and political changes unleashed by the rapid demographic change under way.
In recent years, one characteristic of this change has been that diversity has not only deepened in the urban areas already accustomed to it but also diffused into new places. The imprint of these changes emerges from the respondents’ reports about their daily interactions with people of other races and ethnic backgrounds. African-Americans and Hispanics were more likely than whites in the survey to report a substantial number of neighbors and friends from other races, but interracial friendship was common among all three groups.
In the poll, 45 percent of African-Americans said they had “a lot” of neighbors from other racial or ethnic groups, and another 20 percent said they had “some”; only 35 percent said they had “just a few” or none. For Hispanics, the combined share with either a lot (34 percent) or some (28 percent) neighbors of other races was similar. Perhaps not surprisingly, more African-Americans and Hispanics with at least some college experience reported a substantial number of interracial neighbors than did those without such college experience. Just over one-quarter of both African-Americans and Hispanics said they spent time with a lot of friends from other races; a roughly equal number reported some such friends. Minorities with and without college experience gave similar responses to this question.
Whites were less likely—but not vastly so—to report meaningful interaction across racial lines. Just over one-fourth of whites said they have many neighbors of other races; approximately an equal number said they had some. About half of whites said they had a lot (15 percent) or some (36 percent) friends of other races. Education didn’t meaningfully divide whites on these questions, but age did. Fully 60 percent of whites under 34 said they had at least some neighbors of other races; only about 40 percent of white seniors said so. Two-thirds of younger whites said they had at least some interracial friends; only about one-third of white seniors concurred.
Bridget Wentworth, a young white woman who works in a children’s store in San Francisco, was typical of several younger whites who said that having friends of other races “was just not a big deal.” She cited her education in public schools that were definitely diverse. “I think the reason [for my interracial friendships] is because I’m exposed to a lot more people of different ethnicities,” she added. “My parents grew up in the suburbs, and they just weren’t around people of different backgrounds as much as me.”
When asked to place their experience in a broader framework, majorities of all groups saw a trajectory toward greater intermingling. Among those who reported any interracial acquaintances, 70 percent of whites, 63 percent of African-Americans, and 56 percent of Hispanics said they had more friends of other races than their parents did.
But although the poll documents increasing interaction between Americans of different racial backgrounds, it offers a mixed verdict on whether understanding is also increasing. When asked about the direction of race relations, whites and Hispanics offered broadly similar answers that were more positive than negative: 36 percent of whites and 30 percent of Hispanics said that relations are getting better; 41 percent of whites and 42 percent of Hispanics said that they are staying about the same. Only about one-fifth of whites and one-fourth of Hispanics said that race relations are getting worse. African-Americans were more pessimistic, but again, not vastly so. About three in 10 said that race relations are deteriorating; about half said they are staying about the same, and just over one-fifth said they see improvement.
Almost half of Hispanics and blacks said that America will benefit when minorities become a majority of the population.
Donna Matthews, who moved to New York City from Jamaica in 1968, is among those who believe that trends are improving. When she joined a medical publishing firm around that time, she recalled, “I was the only minority among the good ol’ boys. And I did well because I did my homework to get past the stereotype…. If a young person has good exposure, and is well-read, then they can have a good conversation … and break down that wall.” Others see more-enduring barriers. “I think they just swept the prejudice under the rug during the civil-rights era,” said Daisy Robertson, an African-American furniture builder in Silver Creek, Miss., who is unemployed. “It’s still there.”
It’s telling that African-Americans and Hispanics with college experience were no more likely than those without it to see an improvement in race relations. That suggests that class does not inherently trump race, and that economic ascent can create different opportunities for racial strain.
Similarly, college-attending African-Americans are as likely as those without degrees to say that whites and blacks do not have an equal “opportunity for fair treatment by the police.” Overall, 84 percent of blacks said that treatment is unequal; just 13 percent believe it is equal. Among Hispanics, 63 percent see unequal treatment for African-Americans. Fewer whites see prejudice, but a majority, 51 percent, said that police treat African-Americans unfairly.
Interestingly, a higher percentage of African-Americans (81 percent) than Hispanics (63 percent) believe that police treat Hispanics unfairly. (Just 46 percent of whites believe the Hispanics are treated unfairly.) African-Americans are also much more likely than the other two groups to believe that police treat Asians unfairly, although less than a majority of blacks see prejudice toward that group.
THE INCOME GAP
The gap between white and minority perceptions about prejudice persists on another important front. In separate questions, the poll noted that the average income for Hispanics and African-Americans is well below the level for whites and asked respondents why that is so. To a striking extent, whites, Hispanics, and African-Americans offered similar explanations. Sixty-two percent of whites, 63 percent of Hispanics, and 66 percent of African-Americans said that a major reason for the income gap between blacks and whites is that “poverty, crime, and poor schools in neighborhoods where many African-Americans live make it hard for people to get ahead.” Whites, blacks, and Hispanics also clustered closely in agreeing that a major reason for the gap is that “too many African-Americans grow up in families without a father present.”
Likewise, almost identical proportions of whites and Hispanics agreed that a major reason for the income gulf between those two groups is that “too many immigrants without skills come to the U.S.,” and “too many Hispanics don’t speak English well.” (African-Americans were slightly less likely to blame either factor.) Marie Holcomb, an unemployed Hispanic teacher in Conroe, Texas, expressed the stern by-your-own-bootstraps inclinations of many Hispanics in the survey. “They should learn English,” she said of newly arriving immigrants. “There’s too much free education out there not to learn it.”
On one front, though, the poll captured a wide divergence between whites and minorities. Whether considering the income disparity between whites and African-Americans, or that between whites and Hispanics, fewer than half as many whites as African-Americans or Hispanics identified racial prejudice as a major factor. When assessing either gap, more than half of African-Americans and Hispanics considered discrimination a big cause. In each case, only about one-fourth of whites agreed.
Like a leak that spreads from a small crack, other differences multiplied from that initial departure. When asked whether “our country has made the changes needed to give racial minorities equal rights with whites,” whites split almost exactly in half: 46 percent said yes, and 44 percent said that “our country needs to continue making changes to give racial minorities equal rights.” But 76 percent of African-Americans, and 74 percent of Hispanics said that the nation needs to continue making changes to ensure equality.
That contrast shaped the racial differences on a follow-up question about what single approach would do the most to narrow the income difference between whites and minorities. All three groups largely agreed on one remedy: Almost two-fifths of whites and African-Americans and about one-third of Hispanics said that graduating more minority young people from high school and college would do the most good. But nearly one-fourth of both African-Americans and Hispanics said that the most effective strategy would be “more efforts to combat racial discrimination in the workplace.” Fewer than one in 12 whites agreed. African-Americans and Hispanics were also slightly more likely than whites to believe that increasing integration of housing and schools was crucial.
Whites, in turn, were far more likely to respond that the key to closing the income gaps was more personal responsibility in minority communities. Significant numbers of Hispanics (about one-fourth) and African-Americans (about one-fifth) also endorsed that sentiment, but among whites it was the most common answer, chosen by more than two in five. “I don’t think it’s a race issue,” said John Brissette, a white computer technician in Cumberland, R.I., who is now on disability leave. “It’s more of a personal-responsibility issue. I think it’s a lot of the parents’ faults. I don’t think it has to do with the economy. Every race has a lot of opportunities.”
The roles somewhat reversed on responses to a question that explored educational gaps between the races. On this issue, whites were less likely to cite personal responsibility than minorities were. When asked why smaller percentages of African-Americans and Hispanics than whites obtain high school diplomas and college degrees, more Hispanics (63 percent) and African-Americans (53 percent) than whites (49 percent) said that the difference resulted from minority young people not valuing education as much as whites or Asians. Whites were also less likely than minorities to cite economic factors such as inadequate school funding or crimped family budgets that force young people to quit school. The most common answer among whites was that poverty and crime in minority neighborhoods make it tougher for young people there to learn.
But even though minority respondents were tougher on young people’s motivations, they were also more optimistic about their long-term prospects. Continuing a head-turning pattern evident in other National Journal and Pew Research Center surveys, the Next America Poll found that African-Americans and Hispanics, by ratios well over 2-to-1, believe that “today’s children” will have more, rather than less, opportunity to get ahead than they do. Among whites, the proportions are inverted: more than twice as many whites believe that the next generation will have fewer, rather than more, opportunities than they do. College-educated whites—arguably the group at the apex of the economic pyramid—are even more pessimistic than whites without degrees. “The future doesn’t hold a great promise for the young,” said Peter Zanardi, a white advertising executive in Brentwood, N.Y. “Wages aren’t going up as necessary. And now they’re facing college debt as well.”
On the broadest measure of long-term expectations, minorities are again more optimistic than whites. One question reminded respondents of Census Bureau projections that “sometime in the next 40 years, racial minorities … will become a majority of the American population.” Almost half of Hispanics and African-Americans said that this will mostly “benefit America because these groups will bring new ideas and diverse perspectives to the nation’s values and traditions.” But only 22 percent of whites agreed. The largest group of whites (44 percent) said that the change won’t have much effect (34 percent of African-Americans and 27 percent of Hispanics agreed). But 29 percent of whites said that the change will mostly “hurt America because these racial minorities won’t uphold the nation’s values and traditions.” The negative sentiment was especially pronounced among the overlapping groups of white seniors, white men without a college degree, and white Republicans. Only 11 percent of African-Americans and 20 percent of Hispanics shared that attitude.
OBAMA VERSUS ROMNEY
All of these differences among racial groups come together in attitudes about government and the 2012 election. Three-fifths of African-Americans said that government doesn’t “provide enough of a safety net for people who need help to get by,” but only two-fifths of whites agreed. Half of whites (but less than one-third of blacks) said that “government taxes workers too much to fund programs for people who could get by without help.” Hispanics divided more closely but tilted toward worry about the safety net. Asked what would do the most to create economic opportunity for people like them, African-Americans decisively endorsed a Democratic-leaning agenda of public investment over a Republican-styled plan centered on tax cuts and deregulation; whites and Hispanics split much more narrowly toward the Democratic approach.
Overall, those polled approved of Obama’s performance, 48 percent to 40 percent. But while 90 percent of African-Americans and 58 percent of Hispanics gave him positive marks, just 39 percent of whites concurred. (Only about one-third of whites without college degrees or white seniors approved.)
A chasm separated the races as well in a 2012 matchup between Obama and Romney. The poll found Obama leading among all registered voters by 50 percent to 42 percent. But the president attracted only 42 percent support among white voters, compared with 76 percent from all nonwhites, including 91 percent from African-Americans and 65 percent from Hispanics. Romney attracted just 17 percent of nonwhites, but 51 percent of whites.
Obama won nearly three-fifths of whites who said that the long-term demographic change would benefit America, and Romney won two-thirds of those who said it would hurt. Those results are another signal that as the Next America takes shape, attitudes about the nation’s changing racial composition are reinforcing the familiar ideological differences that divide the two parties—and fuel their intensely polarized competition.
William Friedman contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the April 21, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.