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.
William Friedman contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the April 21, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.