The summer of 2020 drew worldwide attention to U.S. race relations. With massive multi-racial protests, sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of law enforcement, longstanding racial inequities and injustices took center stage in public discourse. Phrases like “white privilege”, “systemic racism”, and “institutional discrimination” appeared with regularity in the popular press and social media.
In response, polling firms launched surveys asking about whether people thought racism was built into U.S. institutions, if white people experienced advantages because of their race, and whether they supported reparations for the descendants of slaves. In an August 2020 NPR poll, we learned that about 50% of whites and 83% of Blacks agreed that racism is built into US institutions and that whites have advantages, while support for reparations had scant support among whites (21%) but substantial support among African Americans (80%).
This and many other polls gauged public opinion in the current moment, but the issues are certainly not new. Indeed, scanning the topics of historical surveys reveals a record of U.S. racial issues, even without knowing the poll’s results..
For example, in 1978, a single question, which appears to have never been repeated, included the name “Bakke”—the Supreme Court case that established guidelines related to affirmative action. In 1992, at least 100 polling questions included the words “Rodney King,” but since then there have been almost none. Attitudes toward the Black Panthers were gauged regularly from 1969-1971, but then not measured again until 2017. Questions about Black Lives Matter were first posed in 2015, occasionally throughout 2018, and then accelerated in 2020, when they were asked in more than a dozen surveys.
While the ebb and flow of survey question topics is interesting for its window into key events and actors, such short-lived or one-time-only questions have limited value if we hope to understand the contours and nuances of racial attitudes in America over time. A deeper understanding requires asking the same questions time and time again, spanning multiple years. Fortunately, sociologists and political scientists have been doing just that for decades, relying primarily on longstanding federally funded surveys. These longitudinal studies by design do not ask specific questions about ‘current events,’ but their long-repeated questions shed light on the broader goal of understanding how Americans perceive racial inequality and what they are willing to do about it. For example, while there was a single question about the 1978 Bakke Supreme Court decision, we can track how American’s opinions have changed—or not—toward specific kinds of affirmative action over more than 30 years.
This website compiles these rich sources of trend data, with some questions dating back to 1943. It includes the results for questions that have been asked on national surveys at least 3 times spanning at least 10 years In this brief report, we highlight an analysis of data that connects most directly to the heart of current racial politics in the U.S.: Americans’ perceptions of racial inequality and what they are willing to do about it. This report also draws on media polls conducted by NPR, Pew, and Gallup during and immediately following the racial protests of the summer of 2020 and situates some of their core findings within the context of the broader historical record on racial attitudes tracked on this website. This juxtaposition allows us to see how the events and thinking about the summer of 2020 fit into the arc of white and Black racial attitudes in America over the past 75 years or so.
One of our key findings is that although 2020 may have seemed to “come out of nowhere” in the sense of a new-found understanding of race in America (particularly for whites), the comprehensive trend data suggests there were signs of change evident in the longstanding surveys, beginning in 2016. Taking the longer view provided by seven decades of attitudinal data, we can see how far we have come—and how far we still have to go—as we wrestle with one of the most fundamental features of American politics and social life.
Principles of Racial Equality
The earliest survey questions tapping American’s attitudes about race focused on the principle of racial equality (see Principles Tables for all available questions on this topic). These questions tap the degree to which a person adheres to the principle that whites and Blacks should be treated fairly and equally. These are “should” questions. They don’t ask whether equality has been achieved or how to achieve it; they ask simply whether it is something to which we should aspire. Black people were first asked in 1972 whether “white students and black students should go to the same schools or to separate schools,” and, not surprisingly, support for “the same schools” was near-universal (96%, see Figure 1). In 1994, surveys stopped asking this question altogether because both whites and blacks were essentially unanimous in their support. But it was not always this way. In 1942, just 32% of whites said “the same schools,” a percentage that rose dramatically to 96% by 1994. The results for this question, and a handful of others like it, document a dramatic transformation in white attitudes: from a time when the majority of whites opposed the principle of racial equality to a time when whites came to match the nearly universal support expressed by Blacks.
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It is one thing to agree to a principle but quite another to live up to that principle—in this case, to put in place policies or processes that address racial inequality. One policy proposal receiving attention by pollsters in the summer and fall of 2020 is that of reparations. In August 2020, NPR found that 21 percent of whites and 80 percent of Blacks agreed that “Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved deserve compensation, also known as reparations, from the federal government.” But with an issue as complicated and far-reaching as racial inequality, the potential policies designed to address it are various, so tapping public opinion about it requires multiple approaches.
Longstanding surveys have gauged opinion about three general kinds of racial policies: (1) those focused on implementing the principle of equal treatment; (2) those that refer to diffuse efforts by the federal government to address problems of racial minorities; and (3) those asking about specific race-targeted policies. Each tells a different story, providing valuable context for interpreting today’s attitudes.
Principles versus Policies
Some policies are intended to ensure the principle of equal treatment. Figure 2 compares Blacks and whites on two trends, one measuring support for the principle of fair housing, and the other measuring support for a policy whose purpose is to ensure fair housing. The message of this figure is clear: support for policies lags that for the underlying principle, both for Blacks and whites. And Black support for policies is consistently greater than white support.
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Consider the trend on the support of the principle of fair housing. From 1963 to 1996, the percentage of whites who expressed support for this principle by disagreeing with the statement that “white people have a right to keep blacks out of their neighborhood if they want to, and Blacks should respect that right” grew from 39 percent to 86 percent. For Blacks, the level started much higher, but also increased from 85 percent in 1980 to 97 percent in 1995. Clearly, the principle of racial equality has grown to almost universality in the United States.
But then consider the trend for support of a fair housing policy. People were asked to choose between: “a law that says a homeowner can decide for himself who to sell his house to, even if he prefers not to sell to blacks” or “a homeowner cannot refuse to sell to someone because of their race or color”. In essence, a vote on a policy to uphold the principle of equality. Among whites, there is a substantial principle-policy gap on the order of 20 percentage points: in 1996, the last time both questions were asked, 86 percent of whites supported the principle, while just 67 percent supported its corresponding policy. Figure 2 also shows a principle-policy gap for Blacks, albeit smaller and with overall support much higher than for whites.
In short, support for racial equality policies is lower than for the underlying principle. But as of 2018, the Black-white gap in support for this policy shrank to less than 10 percentage points. This represents a level of consensus that is rare in racial policy attitudes, as we are about to see.
Policies Beyond Principles
Because of 400 years of racist policies that have cemented patterns of racial inequality that persist to this day, many have argued that more affirmative steps must be taken to redress the past and address persistent discrimination. President Johnson, speaking in defense of affirmative action (a term first used by President Kennedy), explains the rationale in this now-famous speech: “You do not take a person who has for years been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race, and say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.” (cited in Schuman et al. 1996, p. 38).
What can we learn from the survey research record about how whites and Blacks feel about racial policies that go beyond ensuring equal treatment and take affirmative measures to make up for past and persistent discrimination?
Figure 3 shows the responses to three questions asking about the appropriate role of the federal government in addressing the challenges faced by Black people. These questions refer to general efforts to help Black communities, through federal funding levels or special governmental efforts to overcome the effects of discrimination. Unlike for patterns of questions about the principles of racial equality, the data reveal little consistent change in support for these kinds of policies, with no clear trajectory from the 1970s. At least until recently. Beginning in 2016 there was a notable increase in support for addressing racial inequities, whether through increased government spending or ‘special efforts.’ This increase occurred for both whites and Blacks. The 2016 increase was repeated in 2018, suggesting the trend is real, rather than an anomaly.
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The other clear message from these data is that support has always been higher among Blacks than whites. Whites’ support rarely reaches anything resembling a majority. Indeed, only the general “government spending” question reaches close to 50% of whites saying “too little”. By contrast, only 20 percent of whites (at the highest point, in 2016 and 2018) endorsed “special efforts” by the government. By contrast, a strong majority of Blacks reported that “too little” money is spent by the federal government to “improve the conditions of blacks” (in 2018, 80%); and in the most recent years, support among blacks for “special efforts” ranged between 40%-50%. The Black-white gap is greater here than in the principles and policies shown in Figures 1 and 2.
Public opinion surveys typically do not regularly track opinions about specific racial policies. One exception is a question asking whether “preferences in hiring and promotion” should be given to black people. The messages in Figure 4 are clear regarding affirmative action in hiring and promotion: there has been little change over time, and there is a tremendous racial divide. In 1986, when the question was first asked, 68% of Blacks supported racial preferences compared to just 15% of whites. While Black support for preferences in hiring and promotion has diminished somewhat over the years, white support has been consistently low, creeping up just slightly in 2016, when the all-time high of 18% of whites were in favor.
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Hiring and promotion preferences fall under the general umbrella of affirmative action policy, and a Gallup Organization poll gauging general “affirmative action” attitudes points in the same direction as the data reported in Figure 4. From 2001 to 2018, Gallup asked, “Do you generally favor or oppose affirmative action programs for racial minorities?” From 2001-2005, the level of white support stood flat at 44%. In 2016, white support inched up to 48%, and then jumped to 57% in 2018. During this same time, Black support for affirmative action was much higher, and showed little consistent change between 2001-2018.
Although questions about reparations have not regularly been asked on surveys in the U.S., there is evidence of a recent increase in support, consistent with the trends reported here. For example, Gallup reports an increase from 6% in 2002 to 16% in 2019 in white support for the “government making cash payments to Black Americans who are descendants of slaves.” Black respondents were substantially more supportive, but they too showed increasing interest, with favorability growing from 55% to 73% over the same time period. In 2020, after the height of the summer’s racial protests, another poll (asking the question differently) showed white and black support for reparations at 21% and 80%, respectively.
Taken together, across multiple types of policy questions on surveys conducted by different organizations, we see a recent increase in support among whites and Black for more structural and proactive policy actions, both for more diffuse efforts and spending, as well as concrete policies like reparations and affirmative action. The year 2016 seems to have been a pivot point for both Blacks and whites. Crucially, though, the racial divide remains vast: often a very small minority of whites express support for policies that a majority of Blacks support—even after these recent increases.
A Precursor to Policies: Beliefs about Inequality
A key driver of support for race-targeted policies is a person’s beliefs about why racial inequality exists. If a person believes discrimination and racism drive inequality, they are more likely to support affirmative racial policies. In the wake of the racial protests this past summer, public calls to acknowledge the racist and policy origins of racial inequality suggest an increased understanding that racism is the root cause.
In this context, a 2020 survey reported that 50% of whites and 83% of Blacks agreed that “racism is built into the American economy, government, and educational system.” Does this reflect a new awareness of racism brought about by the killing of George Floyd and the racial protests that it generated? Based on data that measures how people understand racial inequality, the answer is: new-ish.
Survey researchers have tracked beliefs about racial inequality for decades. Typically questions focus on whether people believe that there are individual causes—such as a lack of motivation—or whether structural causes like discrimination or access to education are responsible for racial differences in things like jobs and income.
Survey questions about individual explanations focus on either biologically or culturally based differences. The trend data reveal that biologically based explanations have declined in popularity so that today, they are virtually undetectable in standard surveys. As Figure 5 shows, for example, from 1977-2018, the percentage of whites who believe that racial differences in “jobs, income and housing” were due to “inborn abilities to learn” declined from 27% to 6%.
By contrast, culturally based explanations were more popular, though these too have been on the decline. From 1977-2018, the belief among whites that racial differences were because “most blacks just don’t have the willpower or motivation to pull themselves up out of poverty” declined from 50% to 36%. This reflects a declining endorsement of these explanations, some of which is likely due to social pressures to not admit to such beliefs among whites (Krysan 1998).
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The trends in individual explanations for inequality are more complicated for Blacks. Belief in differences in “in-born ability to learn” has always been low, while agreeing that racial inequality is due to a “lack of motivation or will power” began at lower levels than whites, but because whites have become less likely to endorse this explanation over time, the two groups have converged at around 40 percent endorsing it. These Black-white convergences are rare in racial attitudes, and it is likely to be at least partly due to differences in how the explanation is interpreted.
During this same period, Figure 6 shows what has happened with Americans’ beliefs about the role of discrimination in creating inequality. From the early 1970s up until 2014 there was an initial decline, so that fewer Americans viewed discrimination to be a fact of social life. This initial decline was followed by years of stagnation. As with the trends on policies, 2016 was a turning point when both Blacks and whites increasingly endorsed the structural causes of inequality.
Despite the increasing recognition among whites of structural causes for racial inequality, Figure 6 also clearly shows a persistent racial gap. Two questions focusing specifically on discrimination (Discrimination; and Generations of Slavery/Discrimination) reveal a very substantial Black-white difference. Agreement with the statement that “Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class,” has declined in popularity but in 2016, whereas 75% of Blacks agreed with the statement, just 49% of whites did. There was more agreement when the structural explanation was linked to “the chance for education” with about one-half of both Blacks and whites agreeing that this is a source of racial inequality.
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Quite apart from whether people believe inequality is due to discrimination, there is the question of whether discrimination exists as a feature of American society. Figure 7 reports the results from a series of Gallup surveys. The pattern is now familiar.
First, the trends for Blacks and whites follow a similar trajectory. After a period of very few changes, with a trend bordering on stagnation (from 1998-2016), in both 2018 and 2020 there were increases in the recognition that discrimination existed, an increase true of both Black and white respondents.
Second, Blacks and whites have different perceptions about whether Blacks are treated less fairly than whites. Blacks perceive substantially higher levels of discrimination across all the different arenas. For example, in 2020, whereas just about 50 percent of whites agreed that Blacks in their community were “treated less fairly than whites in dealing with the police, such as traffic incidents,” nearly 80 percent of Blacks agreed with this statement.
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In the context of current events, there are three patterns worth highlighting from the decades of survey data tracking racial attitudes. First, although today there is a general consensus in favor of the principles of racial equality, support for policies to advance racial equality lags behind in most cases. Second, beginning in 2016, there have been increases in the perception that racial discrimination continues to exist in the United States, and in support of racial policies focused on taking proactive steps to redress and address racial inequality. Third, although these attitudinal changes occurred for both Blacks and whites, it remains the case that Blacks and whites’ see the racial world very differently. This black-white divide has been true of racial attitudes for as long as they have been tracked.
Given the profound responses to the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police, the racial protests it precipitated, and the shift in public discourse that ensued, one might have reasonably expected that surveys tracking racial attitudes immediately before and immediately after the summer of 2020 would have documented dramatic shifts. But this is generally not the case.
On the one hand, a Pew Research Center report showed a rather remarkable lack of change among whites between January 2019 and September 2020. The percentage of whites who agreed that “When it comes to giving Black people equal rights with White people, our country has not gone far enough” grew a mere 2 percentage points, from 37% in 2019 to 39% in 2020. And the belief that “black people are treated less fairly than white people” was essentially impervious to the summer’s events (44% in 2019, and 43% in 2020).
To the extent that there was evidence of a “sudden” change created by the summer’s events, it was among Blacks. The Pew Research Center report showed not so much a changing course, but an intensification: already majority opinion about issues of persistent discrimination and a need for structural solutions became super-majority opinions. And in some cases, nearly universal. For example, among African Americans, the percentage saying that the “country has not gone far enough” in making sure Black people had equal rights grew from 78% in 2019 to fully 96% in 2020. Similarly, the percentage who said “black people are treated less fairly than white people” went from 82% to 87%.
With the benefit of decades’ worth of survey data, we see that the turning point was not suddenly the summer of 2020. Rather, the turn toward a more structural understanding of racial inequality started in 2016, in tandem with other major U.S. political and social transformations that were centered around Trump’s presidency, the rise of white nationalism, the escalating national attention to police brutality against Blacks, and the like. These events may have spun white people off in different directions and prompted the changes observed beginning in 2016.
The time was apparently ripe in 2020 for the kind of public discourse and protests in the streets of cities and small towns throughout the nation focused on the problems of racial inequality. On the one hand are the persistent and consistent—and recently intensified—recognition of racial discrimination, and advocacy for a range of policies to combat inequality, among African Americans. On the other are whites, always less likely to view racial inequality through a structural lens, who nevertheless broke decades of stagnant levels of acknowledgment of these factors beginning in 2016. But the 2016 turn among whites is just a turn. There is no evidence of near ‘universal’ support of the sort that principles of racial equality and even social distance questions elicit (see Social Distance Tables). For example, although the perception of unfair treatment of Blacks at the hands of the police has increased in recent years, it is striking that even in the face of high profile national stories with videotape documentation of police violence, in 2020, just 50 percent of white people believe that Black people were treated unfairly by the police.
We will look to future surveys to more fully understand the imprint left by the summer of 2020 on public opinion, and to see whether the trends that began in 2016 will persist and grow, or whether they will pivot—or stagnate—again.
 Examples included here are drawn from the Roper Center’s IPOLL, an archive of public opinion polling that includes many of the major media polling organizations with the feature of being searchable by question wording.
 Of course, asking an identical question over many decades creates complications as well, because terminology and meaning of the questions might change. For example, between 1964-2008 (see Implementation Table), the National Election Studies asked whether people think the government should be sure there is “fair treatment” in jobs for blacks. What respondents think is meant by “fair treatment” has shifted over time, so that in more recent years, some respondents think it means non-discrimination, while others think it means preferences in hiring and promotion (Krysan 1999).
 The website builds on the book, Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations by Howard Schuman, Lawrence Bobo, Charlotte Steeh, and Maria Krysan (Harvard University Press, 1996)
 The data-minded reader is encouraged to check out other topics of interest, which include sets of questions on the principles of racial equality, the implementation of racial equality, affirmative action policies, explanations for racial equality, perceptions of discrimination, and preferred social distance (in marriage, neighborhoods, and schools). These tables are available on this website, here.
 To be sure, there is the question of whether hearts and minds have changed, or whether people simply know what they are supposed to say (Schuman et al. 1996). Even if the latter, it reflects a change in the social world that the norm is now to answer in favor of the principle of racial equality. A study of privacy effects in the reports of racial attitudes suggests that adherence to the principle of racial equality is not driven primarily by social desirability pressures. Specifically, questions on the principle of racial equality were impervious to changes in the level of privacy afforded by the survey method (e.g., a private mail survey and a more public face-to-face interview both show high levels of support).
 This conclusion is bolstered by the fact that the three questions come from different surveys. That is, survey data are subject to a variety of possible errors, and so when different questions, on different surveys, conducted by different organizations, all point in the same direction, the confidence in the conclusion is greater.
 While trends were similar for both Blacks and whites, as Moberg et al. (2019, p. 461-64) explain, “Despite blacks and whites having similar trends in policy attitudes, because of their different social experiences and dominant political ideologies, their origins or meanings likely differ. … Changes in attitudes toward government intervention might be connected to a growing disillusionment with both major political parties, which may contribute to greater apathy or an increased interest in considering other political alternatives (Jackson, Gerber, and Cain 1994; Dawson 2001).”
 We have not included this item in our website for two reasons: (1) “affirmative action” is an ambiguous term and it is difficult to know how respondents interpreted it; and (2) the question does not mention black people in particular, but leaves it up to the respondent as to who is a “racial minority”. However, we introduce the data here because they, like other measures that are more precise, report a similar uptick in support since 2016.
 For example, while whites may attribute low motivation or will power to cultural differences, Blacks may endorse that same statement, but attribute its root causes to the impact of generations of discrimination.