So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years... The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.
Those last two sentences are at once sad, hilarious and quantifiably true. If Barack Obama had been born fifty years earlier, for instance, he would literally have had zero chance of becoming president - in 1958, only 38 percent of Americans said they would vote for a black presidential candidate, according to Gallup. By 2012, that number was 96 percent.
That 58 percentage point change didn't happen because blacks somehow became smarter and more qualified relative to whites during that period, but rather because many -- although by no means all -- white Americans abandoned the overt prejudices that kept talented blacks from getting ahead.
The General Social Survey, a massive public opinion poll conducted since 1972, documents some of these changes in white attitudes. In 1972, for instance, nearly two-thirds of whites said homeowners should be able to discriminate against blacks when selling their homes. That number fell to 28 percent by 2008.
The share of white Americans who would disapprove a family member's marriage to a black person has fallen rapidly since the 1990s, yet remains rather astonishingly high. Fully one quarter of whites said they would oppose such a marriage in 2008, the same year America elected the son of a white mother and a black father to the highest office in the land.
More than four-in-ten white Americans still say whites are more hardworking than blacks, and one-in-five say whites are more intelligent. Similarly, a majority of whites say that lack of willpower among blacks is driving racial inequality, and one-in-ten say that blacks are poor simply because of a lesser ability to learn.
As I alluded above, you can read these charts two ways: as a story of changing white attitudes -- "becoming nicer" -- over time, or as a marker of just how much progress remains to be made.
It's hard to look at these numbers and conclude that we somehow live in a "post-racial" society, or to believe, as a majority of whites do, that racism against whites is as big a problem as racism against blacks. We often speak of racism now as an "implicit" rather than an explicit problem -- that the subconscious biases we all hold have created a society of "racism without racists." (Don't believe this? Go take an implicit bias test and let me know how you do).
But numbers like the 25 percent of white Americans who would be upset by an interracial marriage in the family show that racism is still a very explicit phenomenon. Since we know that people have a tendency to tell pollsters what they think they want to hear, these numbers are likely undercounts, and potentially large ones.
"Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people," Chris Rock says. It's not going to be easy.