Poll: More voters acknowledge symptoms of racism but disagree about its causes

Support grows for national anthem protests and removal of Confederate statues in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
Image: Demonstrators pause for a moment of silence during a protest over the killing of George Floyd in Brooklyn
Demonstrators pause for a moment of silence in Brooklyn, N.Y., on June 3 during a protest over the killing of George Floyd.Scott Heins / Getty Images

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By Carrie Dann

WASHINGTON — Amid a moment of national reckoning on racial issues and the mourning of one of the country’s most revered civil rights leaders, new numbers from the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll show that American voters have become significantly more aware of racial discrimination and more sympathetic to those protesting to end it, even as the country remains deeply divided over the prevalence of bigotry and its root causes.

The poll finds that voters in America are now more likely to say that people of color experience discrimination, to describe athletes kneeling in protest of racial inequality as appropriate, to view the Black Lives Matter movement as a positive force, and to support the removal of Confederate monuments in public spaces.

But at the same time, voters are deeply pessimistic about the current state of race relations, the country is sharply divided about whether racism is systemic or just perpetrated by “bad apples,” and partisan identity remains an overwhelming predictor of how voters view the experiences of people of color and the current movement for greater racial equality.

The poll — which was conducted July 9-12, before the death of Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the civil rights leader — found that a majority of voters, 56 percent, say American society is racist, while 40 percent disagree. That share is almost unchanged since The Associated Press found 55 percent of voters saying American society is racist in a July 1988 survey.

One thing that has changed dramatically, though, is the voters’ views of race relations. Just 26 percent say that race relations are good, down from more than 7 in 10 who said the same in several surveys throughout then-President Barack Obama’s first term.

Seven in 10 now say that race relations are bad, including majorities of Democrats (86 percent), Republicans (58 percent), white voters (69 percent), Hispanics (76 percent) and Black voters (80 percent).

Against the backdrop of those grim assessments of race relations, more voters also now say they believe nonwhite Americans experience discrimination.

In 2008, just 28 percent of voters said that Black Americans are discriminated against, while 51 percent said they are treated fairly and 16 percent said they receive too many special advantages. But in this latest poll, the share who say Black Americans experience discrimination has jumped to 59 percent, with just 27 percent saying they are treated fairly and 10 percent saying they receive special advantages.

Just over half of all voters — 52 percent —also now say that Hispanics are discriminated against, up from just 27 percent who said the same in 2008.

About a third — 34 percent — say that Asian Americans experience discrimination. That’s compared to 18 percent in 2000. (The 2008 survey did not measure attitudes about Asian Americans).

And, for the first time, the poll also asked the same battery of questions about the treatment of white Americans. About 3 in 10 voters overall say that white people receive too many special privileges, while 53 percent say white Americans are treated fairly and 15 percent say they experience discrimination.

The 29 percent of voters who say that white people receive too many special advantages includes 23 percent of white voters, 55 percent of Black voters and 35 percent of Hispanic voters. It also includes 44 percent of white Democrats but just 7 percent of white Republicans.

Despite the increased recognition of discrimination faced by racial minority groups in America, the country remains deeply divided on the root causes of racism.

Forty-six percent of voters say that racism is built into American society, including into the country’s policies and institutions, while 44 percent say racism is perpetrated only by individuals who hold racist views.

Those who describe racism as systemic in American society include majorities of Democrats (70 percent), Black voters (65 percent) and young voters (59 percent). Those who attribute racism solely to individuals’ behavior include 66 percent of Republicans and 48 percent of white voters.

“Where voters in general and Black voters disagree is on the root cause of racism,” said Brenda Lee of Vision Strategy and Insights, who worked on the survey along with Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research. “Blacks are more likely to see systemic issues as the root of racism in the U.S., whereas whites see this issue as the result of the behavior of a “few bad apples.” This framing difference creates a schism in identifying the most appropriate and impactful solutions to address racism.”

Support grows for removal of Confederate statues, anthem protests

The survey finds that a majority of voters support the protesters who demonstrated in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, and a similar share say the recent outcry about discrimination against Black Americans has made them reassess their own views.

Fifty-seven percent of voters say they support the Floyd protesters, while 32 percent oppose them.

The same share — 57 percent — says the movement has made them personally more concerned about racial inequality in the United States, while 41 percent say they have not become more concerned.

Attitudes toward the Black Lives Matter movement overall have improved since 2018, when 38 percent viewed it positively and 34 percent viewed it negatively. Now, 49 percent of voters report positive views of the Black Lives Matter movement, while 33 percent view it negatively.

A small majority of voters — 52 percent — also say that they believe it is appropriate for athletes to kneel during the national anthem to protest against racial inequality, while 45 percent disagree. That’s a shift since a similar poll question in 2018, which found that 43 percent called such protests appropriate and 54 percent called them inappropriate.

The flip in public opinion since 2018 on the removal of Confederate monuments from public spaces is even more dramatic. Two years ago, voters supported allowing Confederate statues to stay by nearly a 2-1 margin, 63 percent to 35 percent, although a plurality supported the idea of adding plaques to the monuments to add historical context.

Now, 51 percent say the statues should be removed, while 47 percent disagree.

However, few voters — just 10 percent — support the wholesale destruction of pro-Confederate structures after their removal. And a similarly low share — 16 percent — want those monuments to remain just as they are.

Far more popular are two more moderate options; 41 percent say the statues should be removed from public spaces and placed in museums, while 31 percent support keeping the monuments where they are but adding plaques to offer historical context.

Republicans have moved little compared to the electorate at large

While this survey shows significant movement toward more recognition of racial discrimination and increased support for actions to address those disparities, one group is notable for the stability of its attitudes on race over the last 20 years.

While the share of those who say Black Americans are discriminated against has jumped by nearly 50 points among Democrats and about 13 points among independents since 2000, the share of Republicans saying that Black Americans experience discrimination is virtually unchanged, moving from just 23 percent two decades ago to 26 percent now.

There was no change from 2000 to now in Republicans’ views of the treatment of Asian Americans, with just 12 percent then and now saying they are discriminated against.

The same is true for Republicans’ views of the treatment of Hispanic Americans then and now. Just 17 percent now say that Hispanic Americans experience discrimination, while 20 percent said the same in 2000.

The lack of change on GOP voters’ views on race is perhaps highlighted by another datapoint in the survey. The racial group that Republicans are most likely to believe faces discrimination — with 28 percent stating that opinion — is white Americans.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll was conducted July 9-12, 2020. The margin of error for 900 registered voters is +/- 3.27 percentage points.