The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For first time, more Americans fault discrimination than self-motivation for white-black prosperity gap

(Emily Guskin/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

A record high share of nonblack Americans say the chasm between blacks’ and whites’ standards of living is due to discrimination against blacks, with fewer people blaming lack of will power, according to a long-running national survey released Tuesday.

The biennial General Social Survey found 41 percent of nonblack Americans in 2018 said discrimination was the main reason blacks “have worse jobs, income and housing” on average than white people, up from 30 percent who said this in 2014 and 38 percent in 2016. That level of concern is still far lower than it is with black Americans themselves, among whom 65 percent say discrimination is the main reason for the white-black prosperity gap, up 10 points in the past four years.

The survey, conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, finds the share of adults who are not black blaming lack of motivation among blacks for racial disparities fell 10 percentage points to 35 percent over the same period. The 2018 survey marks the first time in four decades that more nonblack adults blamed discrimination than lack of motivation among blacks. A still-larger 49 percent of nonblacks faulted the racial gap on a lack of educational opportunities needed to rise out of poverty, a concern up nine points since 2014.

The shifts parallel a rise in concern about racial equality in the years after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014 in Ferguson, Mo., which sparked protests over police treatment of black Americans across the country. Last year Congress passed and President Trump signed a sweeping criminal justice law aimed in part at curtailing punishments that were criticized for disproportionately affecting black Americans, and Democratic presidential candidates have focused on combating racial inequality with some encouraging a discussion of reparations for slavery.

Sanders and Warren are talking a lot about civil rights. Not many blacks are listening.

Despite the unemployment rate falling to near-record lows for the country overall as well as African Americans specifically, federal statistics show a persistently stark racial divide in income. The Census Bureau estimates that in 2017 the median income for black households was roughly $40,000, compared with just over $50,000 for Hispanics, $68,000 for whites and over $81,000 for Asian households.

The newly released survey finds concern that discrimination is holding blacks behind is rising among a wide range of groups, though Democrats have shifted more sharply than others. A 60 percent majority of Democrats said discrimination is a main factor in the disparities between blacks and whites, up 16 points from 2014. Fewer than half as many Republicans said discrimination is a reason for racial differences, 25 percent, though this figure was still up six points from 2014. As a result, the partisan divide on views of discrimination against blacks has swelled to 35 points, similar to 2016 but larger than any point in the previous four decades.

Non-Hispanic black Americans have also grown more likely to attribute disparities in jobs, income and housing to discrimination, rising from 55 percent in 2014 to 65 percent in 2018. Non-Hispanic whites’ concerns about discrimination against blacks have also increased by 10 points to 40 percent, though they remain far less likely than blacks to express this view. Americans of other racial backgrounds stand in the middle, with 52 percent blaming discrimination for the gap between blacks and whites.

Americans also have grown more supportive of increasing federal spending to improve black Americans’ standing. A record high 52 percent of all Americans last year said the nation spends too little on “improving the conditions of blacks,” up from 30 percent in 2014 and from 47 percent in 2016. From 1973 to 2012, the survey never found more than 38 percent of adults saying the country was spending too little to improve the condition of blacks. Similarly, a record high 43 percent said the nation spends too little on assistance to blacks, up from 24 percent in 2014 and far higher than in the decades before then.

The public’s heightened interest in the well-being of African Americans is broadly in line with surveys in recent years by the Pew Research Center and The Washington Post that have found a growing share of Americans say the country needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites.

A year after Ferguson, 6 in 10 Americans say changes are needed to give blacks and whites equal rights

Despite these changes, the General Social Survey found less change in support for affirmative action programs aimed at boosting hiring and promotion of black Americans. The 2018 survey found 23 percent of all adults supporting preferential hiring as a way to address past discrimination, up from 18 percent in 2014. More than three times as many adults — 72 percent — opposed such programs given the argument that they represent discrimination against whites.

But a Gallup poll late last year found much higher and rising support for affirmative action in a question that did not mention racial preferences. A 61 percent majority supported such programs for minorities, up from 54 percent in 2016.

The General Social Survey also measured explicitly prejudiced views toward blacks among whites, finding that they have stayed stable or declined slightly in the past few years, and are substantially lower than at the beginning of the century.

The survey found 14 percent of whites rated blacks as lazier or less hard-working than whites, down from 20 percent in 2014 and 28 percent in 2000. Separately, 9 percent of whites rated blacks as less intelligent, the same as in 2014 but about half as many as said the same in 2000. Some 16 percent of whites said they would oppose living in a neighborhood where at least 50 percent of residents are black, down slightly from 2014 (19 percent) but more substantially from the 30 percent who said this in 2000.

Nine in 10 whites said they either favor or are neutral to a relative marrying a black person, up from 79 percent in 2000. Those who oppose a relative marrying someone who is black has halved from 20 percent 18 years ago to 9 percent in 2018.

A new explanation for the stubborn persistence of the racial wealth gap

The General Social Survey was conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago using in-person interviews with a random national sample of 2,348 adults from April 12 to Nov. 10, 2018. Results on attitudes on discrimination against blacks and spending priorities are based on subsamples of between 1,154 and 1,562 interviews and have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3-3.5 points. Data analysis of results by race and ethnicity was conducted by The Washington Post.