Polls Shed Light on Future of Race Relations

In one of the Supreme Court affirmative action decisions handed down last month, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote that "race-conscious admission policies must be limited in time . . . the Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today."

Polls aren't very useful in looking that far down the road, but they can tell how far the country has come.

When Gallup released the results of a poll of blacks and whites conducted from December 2002 to February 2003, 48 percent of blacks and 56 percent of whites said the state of race relations in the country was very or somewhat good, while 31 percent of blacks and 22 percent of whites said it was somewhat or very bad. Views on this question were more positive than they were five years ago, and older people were more likely than younger ones to characterize them as good. An ABC News/Washington Post poll from January produced similar results: 44 percent of blacks and 54 percent of whites thought race relations in the United States were excellent or good. People were more optimistic about race relations in their own communities. Seventy-three percent of blacks and 80 percent of whites pronounced them excellent or good.

One reason for that optimism may be increased contact between the races. Polls show America has come a considerable distance in the past quarter-century. In a 1977 National Opinion Research Center poll, 23 percent of those surveyed said they had brought a person of another race home to dinner within the past few years; in the new ABC/Post poll, 54 percent gave that response.

In 1981, 54 percent of whites said they knew a black person whom they considered to be a fairly close personal friend. In the 2003 ABC/Post poll, 75 percent did.

In a June 12-18 Gallup poll, 51 percent of blacks said "only a few" white people disliked blacks, and 39 percent said that "many" whites did. Fifty-two percent of non-Hispanic whites said only a few black people disliked whites, but 38 percent said that many of them did. Blacks' views about how whites feel about them have not changed over the past decade, but there has been improvement about how whites view black feelings toward whites.

If education is the key to the kind of America Justice O'Connor wants to see, the country still has some distance to go in the minds of black Americans. Only 50 percent of blacks--compared with 81 percent of whites--told Gallup interviewers in the late 2002-early 2003 poll that black children had as good a chance as white children in their communities in getting a good education. Those responses are virtually identical to the responses Gallup got when the organization asked the question 40 years ago in 1962.

The January ABC/Post poll revealed a 34-point race gap on whether black children in their community had as good a chance as white children to attend a good public school (92 percent to 58 percent among those who lived in mixed-race communities).

In a poll taken by Research America for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in September and October 2002, 35 percent of blacks rated their local public schools as excellent or good; 63 percent rated them as fair or poor. Among the general population in the poll, those responses were 54 percent to 42 percent. Thirty-two percent of blacks in the survey said the schools in their community had gotten better in the past five years; 31 percent said schools had stayed about the same, and 32 percent said they had gotten worse.

In another area, a substantial majority in 1978 (81 percent) told the National Opinion Research Center that they would vote for a qualified black for president. In 2000, when CBS News asked the question, an even larger proportion, 93 percent, gave that response.

As for affirmative action, in a February 1995 Gallup poll, 86 percent of those surveyed agreed that affirmative action policies were needed to help minorities overcome discrimination when they "were first adopted over 30 years ago." In the next question, 70 percent said the policies had helped minorities.

When the 1995 poll asked whether the programs were needed, 41 percent of the national sample said they were, but 56 percent said they were not. Thirty-six percent of whites and 66 percent of nonwhites said the programs were still necessary.

Karlyn H. Bowman is a resident fellow at AEI.
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About the Author


  • Karlyn Bowman compiles and analyzes American public opinion using available polling data on a variety of subjects, including the economy, taxes, the state of workers in America, environment and global warming, attitudes about homosexuality and gay marriage, NAFTA and free trade, the war in Iraq, and women's attitudes. In addition, Ms. Bowman has studied and spoken about the evolution of American politics because of key demographic and geographic changes. She has often lectured on the role of think tanks in the United States and writes a weekly column for Forbes.com.
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    Email: kbowman@aei.org
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