From protests inspired by the police murder of George Floyd, to the 1619 project at The New York Times, to battles over curricula inspired by controversial "anti-racism" ideology, the United States seems to be at a moment of reckoning over race relations. And yet, while there's no question that racially charged conflicts have spread across the country, it's not at all obvious that Americans are especially racist today. If you compare headlines with polling data, it looks like politicians, activists, and the media are ginning up racial disagreements even as people become increasingly accepting of those from different backgrounds.
"I think one of the sticking points that I've found is this sort of predominance of white people saying, 'I'm not racist,' and the predominance of people of color saying 'I can't be racist,' and it creates this environment in which we have racism, but every individual is claiming that it's not them," Ibram X. Kendi, an author of books asserting widespread racism, told a recent Harvard University gathering.
"An Alabama state school board member said protesters may be 'terrorists' at a Thursday meeting, amid ongoing controversy over topics of race and racism in education," noted AL.com last week.
All is not well in race relations among Americans, according to news stories. And yet, when you ask people how they feel about neighbors from different backgrounds, you get a very different result.
"In many places – including Singapore, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and Taiwan – at least eight-in-ten describe where they live as benefiting from people of different ethnic groups, religions and races," Pew Research finds in polling results published October 13. Specifically, 86 percent of Americans "say that having people of many ethnic groups, religions and races makes their society a better place to live." That's a bit less than the 92 percent of Singaporeans who say the same, identical to results from Canada, and far above the 45 percent of Greeks and 39 percent of Japanese who agree. Support for diversity across the countries surveyed averages 76 percent.
Can we be sure Americans aren't just mouthing empty platitudes about tolerance? Other survey results suggest that our countrymen mean what they say.
"Ninety-four percent of U.S. adults now approve of marriages between Black people and White people, up from 87% in the prior reading from 2013," Gallup found last month. "The current figure marks a new high in Gallup's trend, which spans more than six decades. Just 4% approved when Gallup first asked the question in 1958."
Intermarriage isn't the be-all and end-all for assessing good will between groups, but it's a pretty good proxy. Marriage is an intimate relationship that tends to push people's hot buttons. And questions about intermarriage have been asked of Americans for more than 60 years, giving us a consistent measure of shifting attitudes. Importantly, approval of intermarriage is nearly identical (within the margin of error) for white and non-white adults, and above 90 percent across age groups and regions.
So, with all of this kumbaya, are Americans just blind to disagreements around them? No, people are all too aware of the headlines.
"When it comes to perceived political and ethnic conflicts, no public is more divided than Americans: 90% say there are conflicts between people who support different political parties and 71% say the same when it comes to ethnic and racial groups," Pew adds.
Note, though, that being aware of battles doesn't mean that people want to pick fights with their neighbors—it's an indication that they follow the news. They're acknowledging conflicts (which, in the cases of school curricula and the 1619 Project are about framing race relations rather than actual interactions), not cheering them on. Also, racial conflicts don't lead the pack in polling results.
"In most societies racial and ethnic divisions are not seen as the most salient cleavage," Pew observes. "In the U.S. and South Korea, 90% say there are at least strong conflicts between those who support different parties – including around half or more in each country who say these conflicts are very strong."
Americans overwhelmingly approve of interracial marriage, but don't feel the same about crossing partisan boundaries.
"According to the latest Economist/YouGov Poll, 38 percent of Democrats and 38 percent of Republicans said they would feel somewhat or very upset at the prospect of their child marrying someone from the opposite party," according to a 2020 survey. Political divisions weigh far more heavily than race.
That doesn't mean that America's racial problems have been solved and we can just drop the issue. When members of a group take to the streets to voice common concerns about disparate treatment by police and the criminal justice system, we should listen. That was certainly the case with last year's protests over George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other African-Americans on the receiving end of law enforcement's often brutal conduct. A society's institutions need to treat people equally—equally well, not poorly, we hope.
There also are still actual racists catering to old fears with garbage like "replacement theory" which holds that white Americans will be pushed aside by people from other backgrounds. It's a hateful message that plays to lingering obsessions with group identities.
But we should acknowledge that Americans observing conflicts around them have the highest level of tolerance for one another on record. Participants in protests over racially charged curricula are themselves drawn from the least racist generation of Americans so far. There's still progress to be made, but this country has come a very long way since the days when only 4 percent of the population approved of marriage between black people and white people and such relationships were illegal.
The racial conflicts grabbing headlines are largely about the behavior of government officials and activists, and coverage by the media. Protests over police conduct were about the state's enforcement apparatus. Protests over public school curricula are about how government-employed educators teach about race relations. The 1619 Project and classroom battles are fueled by activists who are heavily invested in an ideology that emphasizes racial differences to a public losing interest in those divisions. The media, at least at the elite level, is strongly sympathetic to those activists. And politicians get mileage out of amplifying the country's political conflicts with racial concerns.
Americans are less divided than ever before by race, but too many prominent people regret that progress.