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Magazine / PUBLIC OPINION

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.

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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.

BEDROCK ATTITUDES

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.

The survey found that these growing minority populations embrace attitudes commonly associated with bedrock American beliefs about opportunity and advancement—sometimes to an even greater extent than the majority white population.

For instance, minorities were more likely than whites to cite factors related to personal effort as the key to success. Asked to identify the factors that play “the biggest role in determining whether or not you have more opportunity to get ahead,” about half of African-Americans and Hispanics picked an individual’s education level, while roughly another sixth cited an individual’s own skills. In each group only about one-seventh cited the state of the economy; only a minuscule 3 percent of blacks and 2 percent of Hispanics believed that individuals’ racial or ethnic background are the largest factor in their success. “There’s work everywhere, but if you don’t know how to do what they tell you, what can you do?” asked survey respondent Manuel Galvan, a young Hispanic field worker in Richgrove, Calif., who is studying to become a welder. “You have to choose your own path. If you don’t have knowledge, you won’t get far.”

In their assessments of what creates opportunity, whites actually tilted slightly more away from individual effort. Just one-third picked educational level as the key to success, while nearly another fourth identified skills. Nearly 30 percent, though, said that the most important factor was the state of the economy—roughly double the share of Hispanics and African-Americans who chose that response. Asian-Americans were the most likely to say success was rooted in an individual’s education level or skills, with nearly three-fourths picking those two options.

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With one conspicuous exception, minority groups were also as likely as whites to express confidence in a free-market economy. Asked to weigh two competing sentiments, 61 percent of both Hispanics and Asian-Americans said that the free market “creates more opportunities than problems because it provides the most effective way to create economic growth and allow people to rise as far as their talent and hard work will take them.” Only 28 percent of Asian-Americans and 30 percent of Hispanics supported the contrary statement that a “free-market economy creates more problems than opportunities because it creates too much inequality and leaves too many people in poverty.” That closely tracked the division among whites: 63 percent saw mostly opportunities in the free-market economy, while 31 percent saw mostly problems.

Within those three groups, these sentiments were broadly based. College-educated white men were especially likely to see more benefits than costs in the free-market economy, but substantial majorities of white women and blue-collar white men agreed. Likewise, Hispanics born abroad expressed virtually identical attitudes as those born in the U.S.

The big exception to this pattern came among African-Americans. Overall, they split closely on the question, with 49 percent seeing mostly opportunity from the free-market system and 43 percent seeing more problems. College-educated African-Americans were slightly more skeptical of unfettered capitalism than those with less education. “Looking at the bank failures and massive buyouts that had to be used to prop up the financial industry, I think that shows if you let the free market go unchecked and unregulated, you have chaos,” says Larry Jordan, an African-American who is a retired Pennsylvania state employee living in Philadelphia.

In each group, a substantial number of respondents said they believe the U.S. is advancing toward equal opportunity for all, but differences in perceptions endure. Asked if the United States now provides more opportunity for people of all races “compared to when you were younger,” fully 60 percent of whites said yes. Minorities rendered a more equivocal verdict. Among African-Americans, 48 percent said the U.S. now provides more equal opportunity than when they were younger, but the combined percentage who said either that it offered less (18 percent) or that conditions hadn’t changed (34 percent) was slightly larger. Hispanics similarly divided between 46 percent who saw more opportunity, 18 percent who saw less, and 35 percent who said it was unchanged. Asian-Americans were the most pessimistic, with just 38 percent seeing more opportunity and a combined 58 percent seeing less opportunity or no change.

THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT

Those attitudes about the availability of opportunity may illuminate another fault line in the survey: African-Americans and Hispanics were more likely than whites or Asian-Americans to see civic institutions—such as government and the military—as an attractive path. One question asked respondents what type of employer offered them the best chance of achieving career success. Three-fifths of whites picked private-sector options: 27 percent identified small companies; 15 percent selected big companies; and another 18 percent chose starting one’s own business. By contrast, only 51 percent of Hispanics and 46 percent of African-Americans picked one of those business-oriented choices.

Preferences inverted on four more-civic-oriented options—careers in education, the military, government, or nonprofit institutions. Only one-third of whites picked one of those choices, but 42 percent of Hispanics preferred one of them, as did 48 percent of blacks. Asian-Americans, however, divided almost exactly in the same proportions as whites, with about three-fifths picking private-sector opportunities and one-third preferring civic options.

In a similar reflection of attitudes, minorities were also more likely than whites to name civic options when asked which institutions in American society do the most to improve life for people like them. Whites leaned slightly toward the private sector, with 47 percent overall picking small or large businesses, and a combined 45 percent identifying community organizations, religious institutions, or government (just 11 percent). Only one-third of African-Americans identified business, while 61 percent chose one of the three civic options (including 22 percent who said government). \Hispanics and Asian-Americans fell in between: In each case, about half picked one of the civic options while about two-fifths identified business.

Those results suggest one of the survey’s most significant divides: a substantial racial split over the role of government. Like earlier Heartland Monitor surveys, this poll asked respondents to choose between three statements outlining a potential role for government. Among whites, a 42 percent plurality endorsed the Reaganesque sentiment that “in the current economic environment government is not the solution to our economic problems; government is the problem.” Lane, the North Carolina homemaker, expressed that perspective with a passion: “Everyone I talk to has pretty much the same idea that I do, which is that government is taking too many of our rights from us,” she said. “The reason our economy is in the shape it’s in now is because of government.” That choice drew broad support throughout the white community, with the notable exception of college-educated white women and whites under 30, both of whom consistently express more receptivity to government activism in surveys.

But the Reaganite ideal of limited government generated much less support among minorities: Just 16 percent of Asian-Americans, 17 percent of African-Americans, and 25 percent of Hispanics endorsed the sentiment. Those groups displayed much more openness to an assertive government role. About two-fifths of African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans each agreed with the statement that “government must play an active role in regulating the marketplace and ensuring that the economy benefits people like me.” Less than one-fourth of whites concurred. In all four groups, the remaining one-third to two-fifths backed the equivocal final choice: They agreed they would like government to play an active role but remain dubious that it can achieve its goals.

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Charles Sampson, an African-American ROTC instructor in Alexandria, La., expressed the openness to government activism common among many minorities surveyed. “Sometimes we only look at the small picture, our immediate family, instead of the big picture,” he said. “The government is there to provide some type of guidance for us, and I don’t see [anything] wrong with the government trying to … help the economy [come] back. When the economy gets bad, it’s not the people going bad, and we shouldn’t say, ‘Let them solve their own problems.’ We’re represented by the government.”

The groups concurred somewhat when asked what kind of government agenda was most likely to create opportunity. Whites and Hispanics, by narrow margins, and African-Americans and Asian-Americans by a wider spread all tilted toward a Democratic-leaning agenda that emphasized “investment in education and training, infrastructure … and scientific research” over a conservative-tilting approach that stressed tax cuts and reduced regulation. Asian-Americans most strongly favored the Democratic approach.

Those broad philosophical sentiments may imply more consensus than exists in practice: The poll found a much greater racial divide on whether Americans believe Obama’s agenda is helping them get ahead. While pluralities of African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans believe that the president’s agenda is increasing their opportunities, whites, by a ratio of 2-to-1, believe that he is reducing their chances. That skepticism is especially entrenched among working-class whites, the group that has most staunchly resisted supporting Obama throughout his national political career.

ALTERNATIVE FUTURES

Attitudes toward Obama present one of the sharpest racial and ethnic contrasts in the survey. Another telling fault line is the contrast in the perception of generational progress. In a striking result that reaffirms the findings of earlier Heartland Monitor polls and other surveys, minorities were much more likely than whites to see themselves as embodying the American Dream that each generation will live better than the preceding one.

Over two-thirds of African-Americans and Asian-Americans, and over three-fifths of Hispanics, said they enjoy more opportunities than their parents did at the same age. Just one-sixth of Asian-Americans and Hispanics, and about one-eighth of African-Americans, believe they have fewer opportunities. Typical among minorities was the response of Tim, a state transportation worker in Dillon, S.C., who refused to provide his last name. He said he obtained only a high school degree, but that it has positioned him to enjoy a better life than his parents did. “My parents didn’t have education,” he said. “They didn’t go to school, so they couldn’t get too far and get good jobs because of that. Now there’s more opportunity.”

Among whites, the response was very different. Just 36 percent said they believe they have more opportunities than their parents; an equal 36 percent said they think they have fewer opportunities. Noncollege white men offered the most pessimistic assessment of their progress, but substantial proportions of all whites indicated that they see opportunity constricting. Nancy Kross, who has degrees in accounting and paralegal studies, has been unemployed since the economic crash. “It’s very hard to have a positive attitude after three years,” she sighed. “And it’s happened to me in the past.… So it’s like I’m out of work every few years and never have enough time to save anything.”

Story Continues Below Graphic

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The racial divide is equally stark on the prospects for the next generation. Nearly three-fifths of both blacks and Hispanics said they think today’s children will have more opportunity to get ahead than they do. In each case, less than one-fifth of respondents said today’s children will have fewer opportunities. (The remainder said today’s children will have the same level of opportunity they enjoy.)

With whites, the proportions again were very different. Only 24 percent of them said they believe their children will have greater opportunity; nearly twice as many (43 percent) said they will have less opportunity. (The remaining 26 percent expected them to enjoy the same level.) On this question, the most pessimistic group was the one that arguably enjoys the most privileged position in the economy today: college-educated white men. By nearly 5-to-1, they are more likely to say that today’s children will enjoy less, rather than more, opportunity. Older whites were also heavily pessimistic. Asian-Americans were less optimistic than Hispanics and African-Americans but more so than whites.

The opinions of whites and minorities converged more on a series of questions that tested expectations about how growing diversity will change America. With strikingly little variation, whites and minorities predicted that ethnic and racial change will bring a series of positive and negative changes. On the positive side, large majorities of whites, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans predicted more racial tolerance and mixed-race marriages; a more diverse workforce with unique skills; a richer cultural experience for all Americans; and increased success for minority-owned businesses. But majorities of each group also forecast more racial tension, fewer skilled workers, fewer people “who uphold America’s cultural heritage,” and fewer “who uphold traditional American values.”

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One question, perhaps the survey’s most pivotal, tried to synthesize these competing expectations into an overall verdict on the demographic change washing over America. That produced some of the most telling—and ominous—racial and ethnic contrasts in the poll.

About three-fifths of both Hispanics and Asian-Americans said that the rapid demographic trends “continue the American tradition of welcoming people of all backgrounds” to the U.S. and will revitalize the economy and society; only about one-third from each group worried that the “trends are troubling” because “change … is happening too quickly and causing fundamental changes to the character and values of the United States.” Sonia Benitez, a homemaker and former X-ray technician from Wilmington, N.C., who emigrated from Uruguay, said she sees evidence of that positive change around her in the number of immigrants who have “opened businesses and are doing well.” “I feel that the United States is made up of people from all over, the people that came here,” she added. “Only Native Americans can’t say they came here from somewhere else. Everybody else is a mixture.”

But 53 percent of all whites—and closer to three-fifths of noncollege, Republican, and rural whites said they believe that the trends are “troubling” and changing the country too quickly. Only 39 percent of whites seconded the more positive portrayal of demographic change. “It’s a little troubling that the immigrants have so much control over this country because it’s America—not these illegal immigrants who come in for their green cards,” said survey respondent Carol Allen, an unemployed former restaurant worker from Sikeston, Mo. Lane, the North Carolina homemaker, was even more ardent. “Now, if you’re a foreigner, you can get ahead of everyone,” she said. “White males are like animals being driven to extinction.” As on many issues, college-educated, white women were the big exception within the group: A solid 55 percent of them viewed the demographic change as positive.

Strikingly, on this question, African-Americans’ opinions came down closer to those of whites than to those of Hispanics and Asian-Americans. A 51 percent majority of blacks said they see the demographic trends as “troubling,” while 45 percent consider them positive. However, those without college degrees were much more dubious of the changes than those with advanced education.

 

Demography won’t provide any relief from these tensions. All analysts expect the white share of the population to continue contracting in the coming decades, especially among the young. But generational change may provide some relief. While white seniors viewed the demographic changes negatively by a 3-1 ratio, whites younger than 30 saw them as mostly a positive force by a 49 percent to 42 percent plurality.

At 33, Lucas Tatham, who runs a family landscaping business and teaches at a college in Morgantown, W.Va., is just above that age group, but he shares its perspective. “I don’t see immigration or racial differences being that big an issue—for people 30 and younger, at least,” he said. “Maybe older people care.… But I don’t think younger people care because this is what they are growing up with. It’s not Italians or Poles; it’s just a different group now.”

Looking decades ahead, Tatham is one of many surveyed who foresees America forging a new melting pot, with greater intermarriage, more mixed-race children, and “lines being blurred.” For many Americans, the poll results suggest, demographic change seems menacing and uncontained, like a river that has overflowed its banks. But for younger Americans immersed in these waters, America’s transformation into a “world nation” reconfigured by unprecedented diversity may seem as natural, and as irreversible, as the tide. “After a few generations,” said Tatham, “I don’t think people will notice anymore.”

Scott Bland contributed

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