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Race to the Top

Ethnic groups are divided not only over the country’s direction but also over whether the U.S. offers the same opportunities it once did.


Who’s up? Minorities are more optimistic about their children’s prospects than whites are about theirs.(PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

In a rapidly diversifying United States, whites and minorities share many common views about what it takes to succeed in today’s economy. But they diverge over the role of government, the degree of opportunity available to them, and society’s success at providing an equal chance to all, a new Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll has found.

The survey results offer several reasons for optimism that more diversity in U.S. won’t necessarily produce greater division. It found that the white and minority communities are mostly united in the belief that the free market creates more opportunities than problems, that America has made progress in opening doors for all, and that individuals’ fates are determined more by their own efforts than by large economic or social forces (such as racial discrimination) that are beyond their control. White and minority respondents alike ranked racial and ethnic tensions as a lesser source of domestic division than economic or partisan conflict.


But subtle differences of opinion separated whites from minorities—and African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans from each other—on several of those questions. And wider gorges loom: Reaffirming the results of earlier Heartland Monitor polls, the survey again found whites ominously more pessimistic than minorities about the prospects for their children. Whites and minorities also differed pointedly over the proper function for government, with whites expressing much more skepticism and resistance to having it play an activist role.

An even more complex and volatile racial alignment emerged on a central question: whether the demographic changes recasting the face of the nation generate more benefits or costs. Hispanics and Asian-Americans overwhelmingly saw benefits that exceeded the costs, while slight majorities of both whites and African-Americans worried that population change “is happening too quickly.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the Census Bureau reports that Hispanics and Asian-Americans are the two fastest-growing groups in American society. Meanwhile, African-Americans and whites, the two groups whose binary struggles defined racial politics for most of American history, are lagging.



Taken together, these results highlight the common ground that still unites most Americans as the nation hurtles through a demographic revolution expected to produce a “majority-minority” population around 2040. But it also underscores the risk that racial and ethnic divisions, particularly over government’s role and the pace of demographic change, will widen the fierce ideological and partisan splits that already fissure American society. Follow-up interviews revealed strong—and sometimes lacerating—concerns among many whites about the cascading pace of racial and ethnic change. “These days the only person who has a chance to advance is a foreigner,” said Sandra Lane, a white housewife in Conover, N.C., who responded to the poll. “If you come to our country, you should have to accept the traditions of the country and accept God, and [instead] we are catering to minorities.”

The poll suggests that the 2012 presidential election may vividly expose many of these differences. Although President Obama’s approval ratings have enjoyed an across-the-board uptick since March, attitudes toward him and his agenda produce some of the survey’s most jagged racial divides.


The latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll is the ninth in a series exploring the ways that Americans are navigating the changing economy. The poll, conducted by Ed Reilly, Brent McGoldrick, and Jeremy Ruch of Financial Dynamics, a communications-strategy consulting firm, surveyed 800 adults by landline telephone and 200 more by cell phone from May 18 through May 22. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. In addition, FD conducted over samples of Hispanics, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans to obtain a statistically significant number of responses among these groups and to allow for a deeper-than-usual analysis of their views. The margin of error for those subgroups in the survey is larger.

This survey explored attitudes toward the demographic transformation captured by the 2010 census results released earlier this spring and the economic implications of the shift. The Census Bureau reported that the minority share of America’s population spiked from 30.9 percent in 2000 to 36.3 percent in 2010. Over that 10-year period, Hispanics accounted for 56 percent of America’s total population growth, while Asian-Americans and blacks represented another 16 and 14 percent, respectively—compared with just 8 percent for whites. The Census Bureau projects that minorities will constitute a majority of the U.S. population sometime after 2040; other demographers say minorities may represent a majority of Americans younger than 18 by the end of this decade.


This article appears in the June 4, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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