Tracking Trends in Racial Attitudes

Tracking Trends in Racial Attitudes

Introduction to the Racial Attitudes Website

Although polling organizations first started tracking Americans’ attitudes using surveys in the mid-1930s, during those early years, as Schuman et al. (1997) review, just four questions asked about race (and in the case of 3 questions on a lynching bill being considered by Congress, race was not even mentioned).  In 1939, the Gallup organization asked about Eleanor Roosevelt’s resignation from the Daughters of the American Revolution to protest their refusal to allow a “well-known Negro singer to give a concert in a DAR Hall” (2/3rds approved). 

But until 1942, no racial attitude questions were repeatedly asked so as to allow tracking changes over time. As noted public opinion researcher Paul Sheatsley (1966, p. 217) wrote in the mid-1960s, “The polls, for obvious reasons, tend to ask questions about the issues that are hot, and it is clear that, during the decade preceding World War II, race relations did not qualify on that basis.” 

Although asking survey questions about race continues to ebb and flow as public attention to the issue rises and falls, fortunately in the years since 1942, polling organizations and academic surveys have regularly tracked the complicated topic of race in America.  

And these data show that racial attitudes held by whites and Blacks have changed, but that change is much more complicated than often assumed. And as the events of 2020 have revealed, W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1903 conclusion that “the problem of the 20th Century” is “the problem of the color line” is accurate even into the 21stCentury.  

With this website, we provide a window into the changing—or in some cases unchanging—attitudes of whites and Blacks in the United States. We have compiled the results of national surveys that have been tracking white and Black Americans’ racial attitudes from as early as the 1940s up until today. Questions of and about Latinos have not been asked regularly in the available national surveys so our website is, unfortunately, limited to Black and white attitudes. 

Our focus is on data that can shed light on trends, so questions are only included if they have been repeated at least three times and span at least 10 years. The surveys measure white and Black attitudes on racial equality, government efforts to ensure equal treatment, affirmative action, preferred social contact with racial groups, perceptions of discrimination, and other topics for which trend data are available. 

There are two parts to this website. 

First is a summary (with selected figures) that highlight selected trends. This report, “Suddenly Last Summer….: Did racial attitudes change after George Floyd?” situates the events of the summer of 2020 into the broader context of white and Black racial attitudes, as revealed by decades of survey data.   

For those interested in looking “under the hood” –seeing all of the data, and examining other racial issues—the second section of the website provides the detailed results of all of the survey questions we have tracked (in the form of excel tables that can be downloaded). These tables are organized by topic and can be browsed using the menu to the left. 

For more information about this website's content, contact Maria Krysan.

The data on this website 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).

Cite this research as follows:

Krysan, M., & Moberg, S. "Tracking trends in racial attitudes," April 2021, Institute of Government and Public Affairs, University of Illinois System, retrieved from https://igpa.uillinois.edu/programs/racial_attitudes_2021.