Trends in Racial Attitudes

Trends in Racial Attitudes

How do people feel about race?

For observers who assert that we live in a post-racial society, this question may seem simple. We would like to believe that we are becoming a less racist society. Data collected since the 1950s show that racial attitudes held by whites and African Americans have changed. But that change has been much more complicated than is generally assumed. As state and federal policies have been adopted to battle racist systems—from desegregation of schools to preventing housing discrimination to affirmative action—we've seen a shift in the racial climate of the country. However, has there been a change in the hearts and minds of Americans?

The data and analysis presented here demonstrate trends in racial attitudes over the last half of the twentieth century.* The research compiles several national surveys, with responses since the late 1950s. The surveys asked white and black respondents a variety of questions seeking to measure American attitudes regarding racial equality; government efforts to ensure equal treatment; social contact between races; and other racial topics such as hate groups, riots, and the Civil Rights Movement. 



Trends in Racial Attitudes: The Basics

Overall, whites have shown dramatic increases in support for principles of racial equality. There has also been a decrease among whites in negative stereotyping. However, readers should be cautious in interpreting the trends, because some of this positive change could be due to social norms regarding what kinds of answers should be reported in surveys. In other words, we don't know how much of the change is real, and how much is due to the respondents saying what they felt they were "supposed to" say. And, although there was substantial change in racial attitudes in the 60s and 70s, more recent trends reveal little additional change since the turn of the century. In fact, the data show some signs of disengagement (whites often prefer to give "no answer" to racial questions) or reversing of trends (fewer whites today believe that African Americans continue to face barriers due to discrimination). Click here to read a full summary of trends in white racial attitudes.

For African Americans, attitudes have hardly changed since the questions were first asked. In many ways, levels of white support have now "caught up with" black attitudes. Unfortunately, the historical survey record on black racial attitudes is not as robust as for whites for a variety of reasons. But it is clear that black racial attitudes are distinctive from whites in many ways. For example, African Americans are significantly more likely than whites to recognize structural causes of racial inequality and to support efforts to reduce it. Click here to read a full summary of trends in black racial attitudes.

Looking at the historical data, one conclusion is consistent and strong: racial attitudes are complex. Take a closer look at the patterns and trends for more detailed topics and survey questions by browsing the menu to the left.



To learn how to best use this data, or to gain more information about the graphs and tables, contact Maria Krysan.

*The data here build on a book published in 1997 titled Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations, Revised Edition, by Howard Schuman, Charlotte Steeh, Lawrence Bobo, and Maria Krysan (Harvard University Press).