Despite recent outbursts of racial violence and antagonism, whites and blacks alike generally regard the history of race relations in the United States as an era of great progress and forward strides for black people. The two races diverge sharply, however, on what they see ahead.
Racial integration has brought whites into increasing personal contact with blacks in recent years and this has apparently produced greater tolerance among whites. Indeed, the majority of white Americans now believe that discrimination against blacks has all but disappeared from the society. Whites tend to feel that, from now on, it is up to blacks to take advantage of a newly achieved equal opportunity -- and many whites question whether blacks have the drive and motivation to take full advantage of their opportunities.
Blacks see persistent discrimination continuing to hold many of them back, but they too, by overwhelming margins, regard the last decade as one of wide-ranging gains for their race. At the same time, blacks see the nation at an ominous turning point in race relations. Their widespread fear is that a political backlash and renewed racist violence might reverse the trend of black progress.
These are some of the key findings of a special Washington Post-ABC News poll aimed at exploring race relations in America. The survey, an attempt to gauge levels of history and racial fears, was taken at a time when the news accentuated racial tension -- the killings of black children in Atlanta, racially motivated slayings of blacks in Buffalo and other cities and the feared resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, among other stories.
Is America headed toward a period of aggravated race relations? On the whole, the Post-ABC survey suggests not, though there are many, many contradictory attitudes expressed alongside the general good feelings.
For example, the murders of at least 20 black children in Atlanta, a tragedy that has prompted growing numbers of Americans to wear green ribbons as an expression of their concern, evokes sharply different feelings from black and white citizens.
Asked whether the recent acts of violence against black people around the country "were committed by isolated criminals acting on their own, or as part of a conspiracy by some group to attack blacks," 57 percent of the blacks interviewed in the poll said they feel the killings resulted from "a group conspiracy," and 29 percent thought they were the work of isolated criminals acting on their own.
The response from whites was almost exactly the opposite. Fifty-eight percent said they think the actions were those of isolated criminals; 29 percent believed they represented a conspiracy against blacks.
As that finding suggests, blacks and whites appear to be looking at the same events from sharply different points of view. In politics, the same kind of division exists. The poll asked whether citizens feel the Reagan administration will do more, less, or about the same for blacks compared to the Carter administration. Whites tend to see no difference between the two presidents as far as black progress is concerned: 16 percent believed Reagan will do more, 22 percent said he will do less, 54 percent thought he will do about the same, and another 8 percent expressed no opinion.
Among blacks, however, only 4 percent thought Reagan will do more for them than Carter did, and 51 percent thought he will do less. Thirty-one percent saw no real difference and the rest expressed no opinion.
Despite these differences, the fundamental finding that emerges from the Post-ABC poll is the shared sense that a great deal has been accomplished to improve race relations and the condition of black people.
By a ratio of 5 to 1 among those expressing an opinion, whites felt that life for blacks has gotten better, not worse, over the last 10 years. Blacks took that same view in a 3 to 1 proportion.
"I just got out of the Army after 27 years," a 44-year old Texas man told the Post-ABC interviewer. "I've seen all kinds of people, and in the last 10 years the education and job skill level of blacks -- as well as other nationalities -- has improved 100 percent."
"I think they are getting a better opportunity of advancing themselves in jobs, schooling, and things like that," said a white woman in Los Angeles. "I think a few years ago, people didn't give blacks a chance to show their potential and now, today, they mostly do."
From the black vantage point, the perceived change is equally dramatic. The majority view is expressed in the words of a 26-year-old woman, a college graduate who works as a prison guard in New York: "I have had a chance to get an education and a chance to get a good job -- and I didn't before."
A total of 1,872 people nationwide, including 446 blacks, was interviewed by telephone from Feb. 26 to March 5 in the POST-ABC poll. Among other aspects of race relations, the poll's findings demonstrate dramatically that Americans are, gradually but steadily, moving toward more racial integration in their lives -- more direct daily contact between whites and blacks at work, at school, in the neighborhoods where they live. Racial separation remains an overwhelming fact of American life, but it is declining. And, perhaps as a result, racial attitudes continue to moderate.
In surveys taken from 1964 through 1976, for example, the University of Michigan found a substantial decline in the number of people living in all-white neighborhoods. In 1964, 72 percent of the population lived in all-white neighborhoods but by 1976, only 55 percent did. The new Post-ABC poll found the trend toward housing integration continuing dramatically. For the first time, a minority of Americans -- 42 percent -- reported that they live in all-white neighborhoods.
A similar, more dramatic shift has occurred in the nation's schools. Asked to describe the racial composition of the public elementary school nearest their home, 54 percent of those interviewed by the University of Michigan in 1964 said that school was all white; only 3 percent said the school was about half black and half white.
By 1976 after a decade of turbulent school desegregation, there was a substantial shift: only 28 percent said the nearest public elementary school was all white and 14 percent said it was half black and half white.
Today, according to the Post-ABC poll, only 17 percent said the neighborhood elementary school is all white, and 21 percent reported that it is racially balanced, half white and half black.
This single factor, greater contact between the two races, seems to explain the softening of white attitudes, as much as any other element covered by the Post-ABC poll. Whites who live in areas that are racially integrated -- even if minimally integrated -- are far more likely than other whites to say they know at least one black whom they consider a close personal friend. And whites who say they have black friends are less inclined to perceive racial differences than whites who say they have no black friends.
For instance, one survey question asked whether "it is common sense or prejudice for parents to prevent their children from dating someone of another race." Among whites who say they have no close black friends, a plurality of 49 percent thought such action is common sense, and 43 percent believed it is an expression of prejudice.
Among those who said they have at least one fairly close friend who is black, opinion on this sensitive issue is reversed: 55 percent said that blocking interracial dating is an act prejudice; 37 percent thought it is common sense.
In addition to integration, the poll found that age is a second strong factor in racial attitudes among whites -- young people are more tolerant. Considerable prejudice toward blacks continues to exist in America but much of it is concentrated in the older age whites.
One poll question asked whether those interviewed tend to agree or disagree with this statement: "Black people are not achieving equality as fast as they could because many whites don't want them to get ahead." Whites under the age of 30 agreed by about a 5 to 3 ratio; whites 55 and older were the reverse -- disagreeing by roughly the same ratio.
Among whites under 30, two of every three said they have a black friend; among whites over 65, on the other hand, only 1 of 3 reported having a black friend.
One thing that does not affect racial attitudes among whites -- or affects them only slightly -- is political philosophy. White liberals, notwithstanding their close identification with the civil rights movement, do not tend to live in more integrated neighborhoods or espouse more tolerant views of blacks than do white conservatives. White Democrats, likewise, do not appear to be more generous in their views of blacks than are white Republicans.
Among whites interviewed, more than half believed only a relatively small portion of Americans share the attitudes of groups like the Ku Klux Klan toward blacks. Among blacks, however, almost 6 in 10 felt that many whites hold such racist views.
Perhaps the clearest sign of accomplishment among blacks is the widespread belief that white discrimination against them has decreased substantially in their own neighborhoods and towns and cities. One series of questions in the Post-ABC poll asked whether blacks generally are discriminated against in a wide variety of areas, ranging from getting a quality education to getting managerial jobs.
In 1978, for example, 44 percent of blacks, asked the same question by the Louis Harris polling organization, said blacks were discriminated against in getting a quality education. In the Post-ABC poll, that figure is down to 27 percent. In 1978, 58 percent of the blacks saw discrimination in getting decent housing, but today that figure has declined to 42 percent. How the Survey Was Conducted
A total of 1,872 people nationwide was interviewed by telephone in The Washington Post-ABC News poll on attitudes toward race relations. Included were 446 blacks, the large majority of whom, were selected from a special random sample of blacks to insure adequate black representation in the poll.
Whites were interviewed by white poll-takers and, where possible, blacks were interviewed by black poll-takers to reduce the chances of inhibiting respondents. In all, 354 of the blacks, or 79 percent, were interviewed by black interviewers.
The theoretical margin of sampling error in a poll of 1,872 people is about 2.5 percent in either direction for figures derived from the entire sample.Figures based on the 446 blacks interviewed are subject to a sampling error of about 5 percent in either direction.