How Party and Place Shape Americans' Views On Discrimination

Jul 2, 2017

Younger white people are much more likely than older white people to say that black people face a lot of discrimination. Most Republicans reject the idea that black people do. Black people are the racial group least likely to support same-sex marriage but the group most opposed to laws that would allow businesses to refuse service to LGBTQ people. These are just some of the findings in a massive new study on American attitudes about how Americans perceive discrimination, from the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan group that studies attitudes about culture and public policy.

Over the course of 10 months in 2016, the researchers surveyed 40,000 people on their attitudes about discrimination — a typical poll sample might have about 1,000 respondents — which gave them enough data to sketch a more pointillist picture of how Americans see one another. (They could, for example, isolate the views of Latinos in the Southwest who self-identify as conservatives.)

What the researchers found is that it's often very difficult to untangle people's views about racial issues from the influence of the two major political parties. They also found that the rancor in Washington around certain hot-button topics, like immigration, belies what is more or less a broad consensus in American attitudes about how to approach issues.

I talked with Robert P. Jones, who runs PRRI and is the author of The End of White Christian America, about the survey results. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


One of the other things you found was that among white Republicans, the belief that black people faced discrimination in American life was low — about 30 percent. That number was pretty consistent, regardless of where in the country they lived. But for white Democrats, the belief that blacks face discrimination is much higher: 74 percent overall. But there are big regional differences: about 80 percent in the Northeast, 80 percent on the West Coast, but only about 60 percent felt that way in the South.

It's a great window into what's going on in our two political parties. The Republican Party has, over time, sorted itself into this sort of fairly homogeneous party. So if you took the metric "white non-Hispanic Christian," the Republican Party is now 75 percent white, non-Hispanic and Christian. So when you get to that kind of homogeneity, regional differences kind of wash out.

But the Democratic Party has got this very broad coalition they're trying to hold together. And even among white Democrats, we see some some variation. Even though there are double-digit differences between the regions, it's still worth noting that white Democrats in the South are still twice as likely to say African-Americans face discrimination than white Republicans in the South. You can see the regional pull, but that partisan pull is still there.

Immigration is another issue where the partisan and racial skew is going to be hard to disentangle. Although it's interesting that African-Americans are the highest in support in terms of a path to citizenship.

Even higher than Latinos?

They are actually a little bit higher than Latinos.

That's not where I thought this was going. Even higher than Asian-Americans? One in 2 Asian-American adults were not born in the U.S.

Just to be clear, our question was about the approximately 11 million people in the country illegally. Our question is: What is the best way to deal with this group of people? Should we:

  1. allow them to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements or
  2. allow them to become permanent legal residents but not citizens or
  3. should we identify and deport them?

It turns out — and you would never know this from the way political debates go in this country — but more than 6 in 10 Americans support the first option: allowing them a path to citizenship. We first started polling on this question in 2012, and we have seen consistently across the board, there's been almost no movement on this question since 2012.

So if a solid majority of Americans feel this way, why is this conversation so rancorous?

It's really tough to know, but it's not about public opinion. Even Republicans — like, rank-and-file Republicans on the ground — about half of them support a path to citizenship. Another 10 percent support legal residency. It's only about 3 in 10, even Republicans, that support identifying and deporting immigrants.

By the way, there's also no state in the country where anywhere near a majority supports deportation. Even the reddest states that went for Trump by a landslide, there are still majorities there preferring one of these two legalizing options for immigrants in the country illegally.

If you remember what happened with immigration reform, there was a bipartisan bill in the Senate, but it went nowhere in the House. So what's the difference between the Senate and the House? In the House, Republicans especially are only responsible for members in these very small districts that have been gerrymandered to be homogeneous, so they have very little incentive to go anywhere that's going to be risky for the group of white, middle-class constituents that they have.

Where is there the strongest support for deportation?

It tends to be the most conservative states, the states that Trump won. So in the Deep South, and the upper Midwest — Wyoming, Iowa. But even there, we're nowhere near support for deportation as the preferred policy option.

What we see in the data is that on immigration, it actually is the coasts that have historically taken in more immigrants.

So California and New York. Those are places whose identities have been defined by immigration.

But also the border states are more supportive of immigration, which is not what you would think. So actually, it is the upper Midwest and some of the Southern states that have newer experience or less experience with immigration that tend to be most opposed.

One of the interesting things we asked was: "Are immigrants changing your community a lot?" And then: "Are immigrants changing the country a lot?"

What we found was that in places where people were saying "no, it's not changing my community very much," if you looked at whites or conservatives, they tended to say it was changing the country a lot — even though they don't see it in their own lives on the ground.

We did a podcast episode that featured this couple from Montana. They were both retirement age, so they weren't working anymore, and the town they lived in was 96 percent white. And the biggest voting issue for them was immigration — even though they weren't competing with anyone for jobs and they lived in a place where there were no immigrants.

More than anything else, what's starting to define our political parties is less the left or right spectrum and more a response to the changing demographics in the country — whether it's going to make the country stronger or whether it's, basically, a threat. The Republican Party has basically doubled down on that change being a threat, and the Democratic Party is trying to find that way to embrace that and make it a strength. But that's a pretty big divide in worldview.

If there's one thing I'm worried about it is that — that the two parties are sorting themselves into tribal entities that have opposing views.

The Republican Party won whites of all ages last year, even though that anxiety around changing demographics is less pronounced among younger white people.

Some of this is sorting of whites by party and sorting around pluralism and civil rights. Younger white people don't feel it as acutely, but it's not absent.

Can you talk about some of the shifts you saw in respondents' attitudes between 2015 and 2016?

In 2015, when we asked people whether African-Americans were facing a lot of discrimination, 63 percent of the country said yes. The number drops a bit to 57 percent in 2016. So it's not a huge drop in terms of percentage points.

But when we start to look under the hood, it turns out that it's almost entirely Republicans and political conservatives driving this shift. Democrats were 80 percent in 2015 and 77 percent in 2016. Independents were 59 percent in 2015 and 58 percent in 2016, right on top of each other. But you look at Republicans — Republicans drop 14 percentage points between 2015 and 2016.

Is that a function of people increasingly understanding these issues as partisan ones as the year went by? If Republicans become more closely identified with, say, robust support for police officers in 2016 ...

It's always hard to know from the data. Causation is always the most difficult thing to tease out. But when you see a shift like this over a short period, and it's only among one group, you have to ask the question, "So, what was going on with that one group?" And the only real answer to that question in 2016 ...

Was the campaign.

Was the campaign. If you think about the portraits we got from the conventions ... the Republican National Convention was all about "blue lives matter." They paraded police officers up there, talked about police officers being killed — very little mention of unarmed African-American men being killed by the police.

The Democratic Convention was all "black lives matter" — it wasn't all that, I want to be careful here — but it emphasized that, and the emphasis was on this pattern of police mistreatment and violence at the hands of police.

If you think about it, the numbers are kind of shocking. Thirty-two percent of Republicans say that African-Americans face a lot of discrimination and 77 percent of Democrats say the same. It's a 45-point partisan divide.

One of the things that jumped out to me from the findings was that African-Americans, the group least likely to support same-sex marriage, were more likely than other groups to be opposed to allowing small businesses to refuse service to same-sex couples.

We've seen this pattern, actually, among a number of groups where we see ambivalence or being divided on the issue of marriage equality. But on this question [small businesses], African-Americans have been very quick to say — by a ratio of 2-to-1 — "No, no, no. We don't want that going on." And I think the reasons for that are pretty clear. It starts to look like lunch counters and things like that.

It's interesting because we also see this among groups like Mormons, who are more likely to be opposed to same-sex marriage but who have their own history of being a persecuted minority group.

Speaking of groups with histories of discrimination, LGBTQ were also more likely than straight people to think that African-Americans experienced discrimination.

Right. In our survey, self-identified LGBTQ people make up about 4 percent of the population, approximately. So most surveys can never pick up their opinions, and you can't make any generalizations ...

Too small a sample size.

Right. If you have a thousand people, that's 40 people.

But you have this gargantuan survey pool.

Right, we can see a lot of what LGBTQ Americans think, and you can see this personal experience transferring across. It's not just that LGBTQ people think that they themselves experience a lot of discrimination, but they're more likely than straight people to say that African-Americans, immigrants, also experience a great deal of discrimination.

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