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Racial Attitudes in America: A Brief Summary of the Updated Data

 Maria Krysan

University of Illinois at Chicago

Nakesha Faison

University of Michigan

This document provides a very brief summary of the main trends reported in this update. It is based on data updates provided to the tables in the volume Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations, Revised Edition, by Howard Schuman, Charlotte Steeh, Lawrence Bobo and Maria Krysan (Harvard University Press, 1997).

General Summary of White Racial Attitudes

Over the years since the 1997 edition of Racial Attitudes in America was published, the survey record on trends in racial attitudes shows improvement, stagnation, or declines, depending on the dimension of racial attitudes on which one focuses. The principle-implementation gap largely persists, though two of the implementation questions that continue to be included on surveys show an interesting disengagement with the issue—that is, increasing percentages of respondents opt not to answer the question, instead saying they have “no interest” in the issue. On questions of government expenditures and preferential treatment, whites are stagnant: there is little change in levels of support, and in general there is rather lukewarm support, if not outright opposition, to the kinds of policies and programs presented by these survey questions.

Questions of social distance and stereotyping show perhaps the clearest signs of improvement: fewer and fewer white Americans readily endorse statements that blacks are less intelligent and hardworking than whites; and fewer verbally object to increasing levels of inter-racial mixing in neighborhoods and in marriage partners. These trends must be interpreted with caution, for they may reflect at least to some extent changes in social norms about what kinds of answers ought to be reported on surveys rather than changes in actual levels of stereotyping and in openness to living with and marrying African Americans. Studies that use increasingly sophisticated measurement approaches that can disentangle the possible explanations for the pattern of changes are certainly warranted. This might include the use of experiments within surveys, the further development of measures of unconscious stereotyping, as well as in-depth qualitative studies of racial attitudes. One might interpret this pattern of changes to reflect quite strong changes in racial norms (Schuman et al. 1997) that now apply to questions of this type. That is, it may no longer be acceptable to admit to these kinds of attitudes in a semi-public setting like a survey interview. This in itself reflects a change in racial attitudes in this country even if it does not reflect changes in the hearts and minds of Americans. What the implications of this change are, however, is subject to interpretation.

Finally, there are a set of questions that have become less racially liberal over time. Specifically, questions that ask whether African Americans continue to experience racial discrimination and if the consequences of past discrimination and slavery continue to shape the experiences of today’s African Americans. Essentially, the trend is for fewer whites to acknowledge that African Americans are adversely affected by past and persistent discrimination. This trend is of consequence, since support for policies targeted toward helping African Americans are closely related to whether or not an individual believes that African Americans continue to face these kinds of barriers.

General Summary of African American Racial Attitudes

On many of the dimensions of racial attitudes that our long-term surveys have tapped, there has been little change in African American attitudes. This was true when the 2nd edition of the book was published, and continues to be true today. To some extent, the lack of change is because of the high levels of agreement with the racially liberal position that had already been reached, especially on questions related to the principles of racial equality and social distance. At this point in time, for many questions, white attitudes have “caught up” with black attitudes. However, on questions related to implementation, affirmative action, and explanations of inequality, the black-white gap persists. African Americans are more likely than whites to support race-targeted policies (e.g., implementation of equality, government expenditures, and preferential treatment). And they are also to a much greater extent likely to perceive that African Americans face substantial structural barriers in American society. Despite this racial gap, it is also the case that in recent years there is some evidence that this gap has narrowed—a narrowing caused by African American respondents becoming less likely to perceive discrimination and more likely to oppose some kinds of racial policies. In other words, African American attitudes are moving in a direction that brings them slightly closer to white attitudes. Methodological limitations of these national survey data make it difficult to know how to interpret this somewhat conservative turn. First, because of small sample sizes in any given year of the survey, it is unfortunately not possible to tell whether there are subgroups in the African American population that are more likely to have shifted attitudes than others.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, there is the persistent challenge of race of interviewer effects. We know that African American respondents interviewed by white interviewers for some (though not all) racial questions tend to give different answers (e.g. Davis 1997; Krysan and Couper 2003). Typically the effects run towards more conservative responses when an interviewer is white.

Beginning in 1988, the ISR surveys have provided information on race of interviewer, which allows us to determine what percentage of African American respondents were interviewed by white interviewers. There have been slight variations over the past several decades in these levels, but African American respondents across all years are overwhelmingly likely to be interviewed by white interviewers (with a range of 83 percent to 99 percent). On the one hand, given the persistently low race-matching of interviewer and respondent, one might conclude that any changes over time in actual responses could not be explained by race of interviewer, since the racial mis-matching between respondent and interviewer has been essentially unchanged. However, this pattern, taken together with the trends we observed for the attitudes of white respondents on these kinds of questions (e.g., a declining recognition of discrimination), raises a concern. That is, the racial climate (vis-a-vis whites’ attitudes) in which African Americans are answering these questions has changed in a direction of being less sympathetic on these particular issues. It is possible that the effect of being interviewed by a white interviewer has become greater over time—so that even a stable level of non-matching of interviewer and respondent may have a different impact in the contemporary racial climate where whites are decreasingly sympathetic to the idea that discrimination persists. The conservative trend in African American attitudes, then, could be a result of the greater consequences of race mis-matching rather than being entirely due to a more conservative turn among African American respondents. To be sure, more complete studies with greater numbers of African American respondents are necessary to test this and other hypotheses about the current state of African American attitudes.



    Davis, D. 1997. “The Direction of Race of Interviewer Effects Among African-Americans: Donning the Black Mask.” American Journal of Political Science 41: 309-22.

    Krysan, M. and M. P. Couper. 2003. “Race in the Live and Virtual Interviewer: Racial Deference, Social Desirability, and Activation Effects in Attitude Surveys.” Social Psychology Quarterly 66(4): 364-383.

    Schuman, H., C. Steeh, L. Bobo, and M. Krysan. 1997. Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations, Revised Edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.