Tracking Trends in Racial Attitudes

April 21, 2021

Tracking Trends in Racial Attitudes


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 21st Century.  

The results of this research are compiled at the Tracking Trends in Racial Attitudes page on this website. 



Research Area: none

Policy Initiative: none