Tim May remembers that the conversation with his young co-worker was uncomfortable at first. Race wasn’t a taboo subject in the office, but it didn’t come up often. And in this case, May, a retired salesman who is white, had stumbled into a discussion about racial equality with his black colleague while they were talking about their family upbringings.
“He was a bit angry about white people because he thought they looked down on black people,” said May, who lives in Roanoke. “For him, it was mostly about education and how in school, he said, if you were black you would never get recognition unless you played football or basketball. Otherwise you were treated like dirt.”
The conversation didn’t last long, but it made an impact on May, a Republican who thinks race relations are the worst they have been since the 1960s.
“To a degree, it changed me,” said May, 59. “I didn’t realize that this stuff was still out there. I thought we were past that.”
Talking about race relations is not easy, especially at a moment permeated by divisive issues including kneeling in protest of racial inequality during the national anthem, police shootings of unarmed black men, the rise of white supremacists and the fate of Confederate monuments.
But rather than avoid difficult discussions, many Virginia voters are engaging in them, according to a recent statewide poll by The Washington Post and George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government.
Roughly 2 in 3 voters say they have had a frank conversation about issues related to racial equality or prejudice with someone of another race in the past few years, according to the survey conducted earlier this month.
Among white voters, 65 percent say they’ve had such conversations with someone who is black, and 67 percent of black voters say they’ve had a similar conversation with someone of a different race. White Republicans and Democrats are about equally likely to have had such conversations.
The debate about Confederate statues has special resonance in Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy. The Old Dominion has more public monuments to the Confederacy than any other state — at least 223, according to a survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Civil War memorials have become a top issue in Virginia’s closely watched governor’s race and have embroiled local leaders in every region, from the racially diverse suburbs in Loudoun and Fairfax counties to the conservative and largely white stretches in the south of the state.
For this story, The Washington Post reached out to poll respondents to learn more about these frank discussions across racial lines.
Stephanie Moseley, a 55-year-old Democrat who lives in Midlothian, Va., said she began having more conversations about race following Barack Obama’s election as the first African American president. From that point on, Moseley feels, the country has been going backward in terms of race relations.
Moseley, a pharmaceutical sales representative, said she grew up in the South but had never been called the n-word until after Obama’s election. Many of her friends have had the same experience, she said.
“The racists were upset that an African American man was president of the United States. It fueled them,” she said.
She said she has talked with friends and family about the state of race relations in America — especially surrounding police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. Most of those conversations happen with fellow African Americans because it is “hard to know where [whites] stand,” Moseley said.
One white co-worker who approached her to ask her thoughts about race-related topics in the news was “responsive and receptive” to Moseley’s opinions, she said. Another time, she was at a dinner party where fellow guests, who were white, explained that they believed that Confederate memorials should remain because they felt that the statues “represent heritage, not hate,” Moseley said.
“That softened me a little bit,” Moseley said. “But it didn’t change my opinion that the statues should be removed, because that heritage is predicated upon hate.” Moseley added that the statues are part of history and should be displayed in a museum.
The Post-Schar School poll asked whether Confederate statues should be removed from public property, and the results reflected a racial divide.
Overall, 31 percent of registered voters said monuments should be removed; 57 percent said they should be kept. More than twice as many strongly supported keeping them as strongly supported removing them (44 percent vs. 21 percent).
Party affiliation also is a major factor in views toward Confederate monuments. A full 89 percent of Republicans and more than half of independents (58 percent) said they should be kept, while a 53 percent majority of Democrats said they should be removed.
Asked whether the monuments defend slavery in the United States before the Civil War, 59 percent of respondents said monuments do not defend slavery; 30 percent said they do. And 46 percent said monuments are offensive to African Americans, while 41 percent said they are not.
But there are sharp racial differences in the support for removing monuments and the views of what they represent. A majority of African Americans surveyed — 52 percent — said the monuments defend slavery in the United States before the Civil War. But just 22 percent of white voters and 39 percent of voters who are neither black nor white interpret the statues that way.
And while 63 percent of African Americans say displaying monuments is offensive to African Americans, that drops to 40 percent of whites and 50 percent of voters who are not white or black.
“People just have to let go of this political hysteria about stuff. We had the monuments and the Confederate flag, and it wasn’t a big contentious race thing,” said April Lees, 29, a white Republican who recently moved from Alexandria to Clarke County, Va. “If you’re trying to get rid of the monuments, it’s like you’re trying to censor it.”
Lees said that she has had conversations with black people, including a former housemate, but that those interactions have become strained after recent events such as the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville that left a protester dead. Two Virginia state troopers monitoring the protest also died when their helicopter crashed.
“It’s like Charlottesville happened and now if you have a Confederate flag, you’re a racist or a Nazi,” she said. “Or if you voted for Trump, you’re a racist. And that’s not necessarily the case.”
Terrance Brown, a military analyst who is black, said he has frank conversations with his white co-workers about how far the country has to go to achieve racial equality.
“We are all open-minded and educated people, so they are open to it,” said Brown, a Democrat living in Virginia Beach.
Brown, 36, has discussed unequal police treatment of black men and disparate sentencing in the criminal justice system with his co-workers. He said those conversations were occurring before Trump was elected but have become more common since he took office because there is now “no filter on the racism that has been going on in our country.”
He said Confederate statues should be removed because they celebrate leaders of armed rebellion against the nation.
“Why would you try to promote a treasonous act unless you still stick to the ideals of promoting slavery?” he said.
Many of his white colleagues had not realized that the statues were generally erected in the Jim Crow era, long after the Civil War, and once he informed them of their history, they came to understand why the statues upset many black people, he said.
Monica Hargrove, a lawyer and minister in Alexandria, said she talks about race in a variety of contexts — including in church and with neighbors and friends. Hargrove, who is black, said she tries to explain the history of movements such as Black Lives Matter to people who do not understand why black lives are being singled out.
“People want to say we’re a nation of immigrants, and we haven’t given other groups special privileges and special treatment, but most of those people’s families didn’t come here as slaves,” she said. “I try to explain the prejudice and violence that we have suffered.”
Some people are receptive while others are not, she said.
In the months since Trump took office, there has been a heightened “sense of entitlement” and “disrespect for people of other races,” Hargrove said.
“Frankly it’s frightening,” she said. “I have a 30-year-old son, and I’m frightened that he might be pulled over for no good reason. He is a working engineer, but people won’t see anything beyond his race. I am frightened for my own safety if I’m driving back from Fredericksburg.”
In the Post-Schar School poll, 29 percent of white voters who have talked with someone who is African American about equality or prejudice said Confederate monuments should be removed — higher than the 17 percent among whites who have not had such conversations.
Although many of those interviewed for this story said the racial divide was more pronounced now than it had been in decades, others felt that the issues were less contentious and were being blown out of proportion because of social media and biased news coverage.
Sheryl Beresford, a 52-year-old secretary, said she talks about race with people of different races — including African Americans — in her Protestant church in Haymarket, Va. They all agree that Confederate statues should not be removed, she said.
Beresford, who supports Trump, said she believes that the media is focusing on racial divisions she does not see.
“There is no heated discussion,” Beresford said. “The color of your skin doesn’t have anything to do with it. We all agree on the issues.”
Christian Barbosa, who is Latino and describes himself as a conservative independent voter, says reason usually prevails in his experiences talking with African Americans and whites about race.
“I’ve talked with folks of both races about it, and it’s not usually difficult. You can tell within the first five minutes if someone is open to a discussion,” said Barbosa, 24, of Falls Church.
A systems engineer who has dual U.S.-Brazilian citizenship, Barbosa says he’s more optimistic than he used to be.
“There’s a lot of loud voices on either side of these divisions,” he said. “But there are so many reasonable people of all colors and backgrounds that want to have these conversations. I’ve had that proven to me time and time again.”
The Post-Schar School poll was conducted Sept. 28 through Oct. 2 among a random sample of 1,121 Virginia adults. The margin of sampling error is plus-or-minus 3.5 percentage points among the sample of 1,000 registered voters and 4.5 points among the sample of 720 likely voters.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.