A new Associated Press (AP) poll finding that racial attitudes have not improved in the four years since the United States elected its first black president comes as no surprise to Atlanta experts.
“The rhetoric of the Republican right wing has been pandering to these feelings and has made them acceptable and encouraged,” says Dr. Michael Harris, associate professor of African American studies at Emory University.
Dr. Beverly Tatum, president of Spelman College and author of “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” agrees that the poll findings might be expected. “The combination of social change, economic distress, and growing populations of color is experienced by some whites as threatening. In that context, it is not surprising to see a rise in negative attitudes toward the “other” – in this case, Blacks and Latinos,” she says.
The AP poll found that racial prejudice has increased slightly since 2008 whether those feelings were measured using questions that explicitly asked respondents about racist attitudes, or through an experimental test that measured implicit views toward race without asking questions about that topic directly.
In all, 51 percent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey. When measured by an implicit racial attitudes test, the number of Americans with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56 percent, up from 49 percent during the last presidential election. In both tests, the share of Americans expressing pro-black attitudes fell.
”As much as we’d hope the impact of race would decline over time … it appears the impact of anti-black sentiment on voting is about the same as it was four years ago,” says Jon Krosnick, a Stanford University professor who worked with AP to develop the survey.
Most Americans expressed anti-Hispanic sentiments, too. In an AP survey done in 2011, 52 percent of non-Hispanic whites expressed anti-Hispanic attitudes. That figure rose to 57 percent in the implicit test. The survey on Hispanics had no past data for comparison.
The AP surveys were conducted with researchers from Stanford University, the University of Michigan and NORC at the University of Chicago.
“‘We have this false idea that there is uniformity in progress and that things change in one big step. That is not the way history has worked,” says Jelani Cobb, professor of history and director of the Institute for African-American Studies at the University of Connecticut. ”When we’ve seen progress, we’ve also seen backlash.”
President Obama has tread cautiously on the subject of race, but many African-Americans have talked openly about perceived antagonism toward them since Obama took office. As evidence, they point to events involving police brutality or cite bumper stickers, cartoons and protest posters that mock the president as a lion or a monkey, or lynch him in effigy.
”Part of it is growing polarization within American society,” says Fredrick Harris, director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University. ”The last Democrat in the White House said we had to have a national discussion about race. There’s been total silence around issues of race with this president. But, as you see, whether there is silence, or an elevation of the discussion of race, you still have polarization. It will take more generations, I suspect, before we eliminate these deep feelings.”
Overall, the survey found that by virtue of racial prejudice, Obama could lose 5 percentage points off his share of the popular vote in his Nov. 6 contest against Republican challenger Mitt Romney. But Obama also stands to benefit from a 3 percentage point gain due to pro-black sentiment, researchers said. Overall, that means an estimated net loss of 2 percentage points due to anti-black attitudes.
The poll finds that racial prejudice is not limited to one group of partisans. Although Republicans were more likely than Democrats to express racial prejudice in the questions measuring explicit racism (79 percent among Republicans compared with 32 percent among Democrats), the implicit test found little difference between the two parties. That test showed a majority of both Democrats and Republicans held anti-black feelings (55 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans), as did about half of political independents (49 percent).
Obama faced a similar situation in 2008, the survey then found.
The AP developed the surveys to measure sensitive racial views in several ways and repeated those studies several times between 2008 and 2012.