The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Half of American whites see no racism around them

Worshippers gather to pray in a hotel parking lot across the street from the scene of a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

The murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., on Wednesday night appears to be a horrific -- and impossible to deny -- illustration of racism in America. Federal authorities are investigating it as a hate crime. The city's mayor called the shooting "an unfathomable and unspeakable act by somebody filled with hate."

When it comes to more day-to-day racism, though -- in the economy, in schools, even in the criminal justice system -- there is nothing "undeniable" in the minds of many Americans, particularly whites. A Washington Post analysis of Pew Research Center polling on racial issues shows that half of white people do not sense black people are treated less fairly than whites -- by police, employers, doctors, restaurants and schools, and at the ballot box.

The whites who see no racism around them are far more conservative than the population as a whole, more often male and more likely to live in rural areas. Three-fifths of white Republicans see no racism, compared to about a third of white Democrats.

A far smaller share of blacks do not see racial discrimination in their communities: 13 percent, or slightly more than one in eight. Hispanics were closer to blacks on the issue, with 24 percent not seeing discrimination across all seven areas the poll measured. Conversely, blacks were five times more likely than whites to report widespread racial disparities across their communities.

The survey, from 2013, asked respondents if black people in their community were treated less fairly than whites in seven different areas: in dealing with the police, in the courts, on the job or at work, in stores or restaurants, in local public schools, in getting health care and when voting in elections.

In every case except dealing with police, a majority or plurality of all respondents said blacks were not treated less fairly. In every instance, though, at least 4 in 10 blacks said they were treated less fairly.

The Post broke down the polling data to see how many times an individual respondent said blacks were treated less fairly. For white respondents, 49 percent of respondents said blacks were treated fairly in all seven categories -- compared to 2 percent who said blacks were treated less fairly in every instance. For black respondents, roughly the same share said blacks were always treated less fairly (14 percent) as said they were never treated less fairly (13 percent). Forty-two percent of black respondents saw racism in five or more categories, compared to 8 percent of whites. White respondents who said discrimination was widespread were far more liberal and more likely to live in urban areas.

How do these perceptions match up to reality? While it's hard to say exactly how much discrimination exists in each part of society in the Pew Research survey, there's strong evidence of disparate treatment across several sectors.  In the criminal justice system, black marijuana users are far more likely to be arrested than white marijuana users, despite modest differences in usage rates. As sociologists Devah Pager and Hana Shepherd summarized in 2008, evidence of discrimination against blacks persists in a wide variety of settings. Blacks tend to pay more than whites for fast food (controlling for other factors) and when buying cars and receive fewer callbacks when applying for jobs. Other examples abound, but together they suggest discrimination continues to exist in a range of areas.

It's possible, of course, that recent events -- including highly publicized police-involved deaths of black men in cities such as Baltimore, Cleveland and Ferguson, Mo. -- have changed some of those perceptions. As The Post's Wesley Lowery noted Wednesday, Gallup polling shows 13 percent of black Americans now rank race relations as the country's most pressing problem -- up from 3 percent at the start of 2014. Four percent of whites say the same, up from 1 percent.