The differences between Democrats and Republicans over race, in three charts

August 27, 2013

The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, is just a day away. So, where do Americans come down on the question of how far the country has moved toward King's vision of racial equality in the five decades since the march?

Viewed through the lens of political party affiliation, they are divided: Most Republicans say the country has made "a lot" of progress toward racial equality, while a majority of Democrats say they see shorter strides. And when it comes to what's left to be done in the future, most Democrats see "a lot" more work, while most Republicans do not.

Fifty-six percent of Republicans say the country has made "a lot" of progress toward racial equality, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted earlier this month. By comparison, just 38 percent of Democrats say the same thing. Political independents fall in between: Just under half (48 percent) say the United States has made "a lot" of progress.

A plurality of Democrats (44 percent) offered a measured appraisal, saying the country has made "some" progress. Sixteen percent say America has made little or no progress.

Attitudes about the future are also notably different across party lines. More than six in 10 Democrats (63 percent) say "a lot" still needs to be done to achieve King's dream. Just 35 percent of Republicans agree. A plurality of GOP respondents (38 percent) say "some" more needs to be done, compared to just 26 percent of Democrats who say the same thing.

Blacks are less likely than whites to see "a lot" of progress since King's speech, the poll shows, and they're much more likely than whites to say "a lot" of work remains to be done. Since blacks make up a larger part of the Democratic Party than the Republican Party, one might be led to conclude that the differences on this issue are primarily driven by a difference in the racial makeup of each party.

But the poll shows that this isn't the case. Among white Democrats and Republicans, the party differences remain. Fifty-eight percent of white Republicans but only 40 percent of white Democrats say "a lot" of progress has been made toward racial equality. And a majority of white Democrats (56 percent) say a lot more needs to be done, compared to just 34 percent of white Republicans who said the same thing.

There are also key differences between Democrats and Republicans on the question of whether blacks are treated less fairly than whites across a range of issues, including dealing with the police, courts, and voting in elections. On each one, Democrats and political independents are more likely than Republicans to say blacks are treated less fairly. Once again, the differences between the parties are discernible even when controlling for race.

Issues involving race continue to persist as part of the broader political discussion. Take the debate over voting laws that is raging right now. Democrats and Republicans have starkly different views over identification regulations and other law. Democrats claim many such restrictions are discriminatory; Republicans say race has nothing to do with it.

As that and other debates move forward, it's worth bearing in mind the differences in attitudes over racial progress that exist between Democrats and Republicans.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Scott Clement · August 27, 2013