[COMMENTARY] White People Are Part of the Racial Reckoning, but Only if We Look at Data the Right Way

Reflection on the one year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd and the mass protests it sparked will endure beyond that day, and we might expect the events of the summer of 2020 to have inspired a newfound appreciation in white people for the ways in which Black people are discriminated against in America.

Some experts have dashed those hopes. In October 2020, the Pew Research Center issued a report with the subtitle: “Attitudes of whites largely unchanged since 2019”.  They pointed, for example, to the fact that the percentage of Black people who agreed that “Black people are treated less fairly than white people in dealings with the police” increased from an already-high 84% to 91% between January 2019 and September 2020, but agreement by white people during this time actually declined somewhat from 63% to 58%.

(Photo by APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images)

We shouldn’t rely exclusively on these snapshots of white people’s attitudes to understand whether they are part of the larger racial reckoning. White people are part of this movement and we can see that if we look at it the right way.

The Pew report was a useful “right before and right after” snapshot of whether the events caused a seismic shift in attitudes virtually overnight. And they didn’t. But although white attitudes may not have changed “suddenly last summer,” there are signs of recent change if we take the longer view.

Older survey data going back much further in time show that a majority of white people have, for decades, thought the same thing about the existence of racial discrimination: that it largely didn’t exist.

However, around 2016, for the first time in a long time, a growing percentage of white people were willing to acknowledge the existence and significance of racial discrimination; this goes back further than Pew’s data. Though hard to say for sure, this trend is likely in response to growing awareness and social movements — the rise of white nationalism, escalating national attention to police brutality, the growing influence of the Black Lives Matter Movement —  that tended to intersect at the election of Donald J. Trump. Recognizing structural factors like discrimination is an important ingredient for ultimately effecting change.

For example, the Gallup Poll has asked people in this country repeatedly for more than two decades: “Just your impression, are Blacks in your community treated less fairly than whites in dealing with the police, such as traffic incidents?”

From 1997 until 2015, the percentage of white people who said “yes” stayed about the same, and never exceeded 35% (ranging from 29%-35%).  But in 2016, for the first time, the percentage topped 40%, an almost 15% increase.

And the upward growth continued, reaching nearly 50% by the summer of 2020, a 41% increase since 2015.  It’s a hopeful development while also striking that, even in the face of high-profile national stories with videotape documentation of police violence, not quite one-half of white people believe that Black people are treated unfairly by the police.

It’s important to remember that 2020 wasn’t the wakeup for white people, so we may be expecting too much from that pivotal summer. Rather, surveys detected meaningful changes in white attitudes beginning around 2016—and it was the first such movement in decades. The summer of 2020 should be viewed more as the middle of something that had been building for years, not a sudden overnight sensation.

None of this gets this group off the hook. Admittedly, white people and their understanding of racism aren’t where they need to be. In domains other than the police — like education, housing, and everyday experiences like shopping and dining out — white people tend to see even less discrimination against Black people. In these domains in recent decades, nowhere near a majority of whites think Black people are treated less fairly.  Indeed, it’s generally in the 10%-30% range.

Take job discrimination. Until 2015, data from the Gallup Organization showed that the percentage of white people who thought Black people were treated unfairly on the job or at work was barely double digits—ranging from 9%-14% (but mostly 10-11%). But the percentage began to grow in 2015 and reached just over one in four whites by 2020. Although the levels remain low, they too appear to be on the move after decades of stagnation.

Since 1977, the General Social Survey has tracked the percentage of people who agree that discrimination is an important reason that, “on average, Blacks have worse jobs, income, and housing than white people do.” In both 1977 and 1985, 41% of white people said yes. After those high points, it decreased steadily, reaching its lowest point of 26% in 2004.

But it rebounded by 2018 when 39% of whites said they thought discrimination was an important cause of racial inequality, so we are almost back to the future.

Survey data on white attitudes are just one indicator of the racial changes emerging in our nation.  Over the last year it has seemed like in every corner of American society—from activists (not unexpectedly) to celebrities to politicians to religious leaders to CEOs (rather unexpectedly)—there were signs of a growing willingness to acknowledge the reality of persistent racism. Headlines and Twitter feeds were full of pledges from white people committed to doing better. This marked a level of public attention to the issue provides a contrast to the modest shifts in white public opinion.

But we shouldn’t be dismayed. This growth since about 2016 is actually cause for optimism if we’re looking for broad support for policies to address discrimination.  Decades of scholarship have shown that white people who acknowledge discrimination and who see inequality as being caused by structural factors like discrimination rather than individual ones like effort and innate ability are more likely to support race-targeted policies and practices that can change these systems.

Luckily, white people recognizing discrimination as a problem isn’t the only way that policies and practices to address systemic inequality will be enacted. Remember that the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling predated majority white support for school desegregation. In 1956, just 50% of white people—and substantially fewer white southerners—supported integrated schools. Thus, we need not wait for the racial Prejudice, George Floyd, the Pew report, racial discrimination, white nationalism, black lives matter movement, Gallup poll, the General Social Survey, white majority opinion to do something about racial injustice.

Surveys that track attitudes over many years are essential for understanding what’s going on, especially since this longer view of the arc of white people’s attitudes suggests that we have an opening.

A wider lens can help us guard against mistaken ideas about the pace and direction of change. It can correct misplaced assumptions that everybody has changed.  Or that nobody has changed. The truth is somewhere in between.

About the Author:

Maria Krysan is a Professor of Sociology, an Institute of Government and Public Affairs senior scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.

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