As Nation Reckons With Race, Poll Finds White Americans Least Engaged

Aug 27, 2020
Originally published on August 27, 2020 9:43 am

Anti-Black racism had always bothered John Collins, but he'd never personally done anything about it.

That changed after police killed George Floyd in May.

Stuck at home and furloughed from work because of the pandemic, Collins had time to watch coverage of the protests Floyd's death had set off and to reflect on the nation's history of racial injustice.

"The more you see it the more it boils inside," said Collins, 63, who is white and lives in Central Florida. "And I guess the boiling inside just kind of said, 'What can you do?'"

Collins sympathized with the people marching in the protests but felt "I'm not that type of person." So instead, he called and wrote his representatives in Congress and asked what they were doing to address racism in the country. He didn't hear back, "but I still thought it was important to do."

As the nation navigates its most consequential racial justice movement in a half-century, some people have responded to the calls for action to remedy the country's racist past and present by protesting in the streets or doing something as simple as reading a book about race. But a new NPR/Ipsos poll finds that these people remain a minority.

Loading...

Though advocates believe true equality will not be achieved until all Americans are willing to grapple with racism, the survey showed that just 36% of those polled said they had taken concrete action to better understand racial issues after George Floyd's killing.

White people were the least likely to have done so, at just 30%. That compares with 51% of Latinos, 49% of Asians, and 41% of Black people who answered "Yes" when asked: "Since the death of George Floyd in May, have you personally taken any actions to better understand racial issues in America?"

White Americans were also least likely to report having attended a protest or rally following George Floyd's death. Seven percent said they had, compared with 13% of Black Americans, 11% of Latinos and 8% of Asian Americans.

Loading...

These data points, along with others in the poll, offer insight into the extent to which the ongoing protest movement has moved Americans to tackle issues of racial justice or won them over to some of the demands that have emerged from the protests. It found that perceptions, opinions and engagement continue to be split along racial lines and that deep fissures remain.

"Most Americans acknowledge that there is racism built into American systems," said Ipsos pollster Mallory Newall, but "at the core there is still a significant gap in willingness to do the work between white Americans and people of color."

The poll found that 58% of Americans acknowledge that racism is built into the American economy, government and education systems. That includes half of white Americans, though they were less likely than any other racial group to believe so.

The poll was conducted from Aug. 20-21 and surveyed 1,186 adults in the continental United States, Alaska and Hawaii.

White Americans were also the least likely to support the Black Lives Matter movement, with 47% expressing support. By contrast, 73% of Black respondents supported the movement, while 59% of Latinos and Asians did.

Loading...

Among those who said they did not support the movement was Dee Weiler, a white retired neuropsychologist who lives in the mountains of northeast Georgia.

"What about the Hispanics? What about the Indians? What about us? The Caucasians?" she asked. "So no, I have a big problem with how the movement is being portrayed and encouraged."

She said the Black Lives Matter movement is divisive, an argument offered up by many conservatives, including President Trump, whom Weiler supports. Weiler also called "ridiculous" one of the demands that has gained traction within the movement: to defund police departments and reallocate money to social service programs.

In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, the City Council pledged to disband the police department in favor of alternative public safety solutions. Though the proposal has stalled, the council has said it remains committed to the change, and the move has emboldened activists in other cities to push for similar reforms.

But the racial divide on that issue is wide, the NPR/Ipsos poll found.

Only 37% of white Americans said they support redirecting funding from their police department toward social services.

Among Black Americans, 69% were in support, as were 65% of Latinos and 58% of Asians.

Loading...

At the same time, white Americans were significantly more optimistic than Black, Latino and Asian Americans that police treatment of Black people will improve.

Fewer than half of Black respondents said they thought police would start treating Black people better, while nearly three-quarters of white respondents did.

Jay Baptist, a Black 28-year-old graduate student living in West Palm Beach, said it did not surprise her that white people were more optimistic.

"They don't live in the type of environments that we do. So they don't see what we experience face to face," she said. "So I think that's why they think like that. But if they were to live in our little world, our little bubble, then I really think their eyes would be open to what's actually going to happen."

For some respondents, last weekend's shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., seemed to justify their skepticism that police relations with Black Americans will improve. On Friday, the families of many of the Black people killed by police in recent years will lead a march on Washington demanding change.

The NPR/Ipsos poll also found:

— Thirty-eight percent of all respondents said they thought Joe Biden was bringing the country closer to racial equality, while 20% said they thought Donald Trump was.

— Fifty-five percent of white Americans said the COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted greater damage on communities of color, compared with roughly 70% of Blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans who thought so.

— The biggest disagreement between white and Black Americans was on the issue of reparations. Eighty percent of Black Americans said they believe the federal government should compensate the descendants of enslaved people, while 21% of white Americans did.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The police shooting in Kenosha, Wis., further intensified our national attention on race. We're deep into a summer of arguments over that subject. They coincide with the reelection campaign of the president, whose rhetoric includes frequent attacks on Muslims, Latinos and Black leaders. Now a new NPR/Ipsos poll finds big differences between the ways that people of different races view the same events. NPR's Adrian Florido has the details. Adrian, good morning.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are some examples of these differences?

FLORIDO: Well, a big takeaway in this poll that NPR conducted is there are still big differences in people's attitudes about a lot of the racial issues that our country has been facing this summer and that these divides largely are split along racial lines. So one example - fewer than half of white respondents to our poll said they support Black Lives Matter. That was a big takeaway. Only 30% of white Americans said they had personally done something to better understand issues of race after George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis in May. And those numbers were much higher for Black and brown Americans.

INSKEEP: What do those differences tell you?

FLORIDO: So here's what Mallory Newall, the pollster who conducted the survey for us for Ipsos, polling firm - this is what she said.

MALLORY NEWALL: Our country - at its core, there is still a significant gap in perceptions and willingness to do the work between white Americans and people of color.

FLORIDO: You know, we've seen a lot of white people out at these marches this summer. There's no doubt that white Americans have been an important part of this movement. But again, what Newall said is that, you know, if we look at the country a whole, this poll offers a bit of a reality check about who's engaging and who's not.

INSKEEP: What kinds of attitudes did you find about defunding the police?

FLORIDO: Well, the poll found there's a very big difference between how Black, brown and white people feel about this issue. Only a little more than a third of white people said they support defunding the police, while more than two-thirds of Black people said they did, as did similar majorities of Latino and Asian Americans. One person who did not support defunding the police is Dee Weiler. She lives in Georgia.

DEE WEILER: I think that's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard in my life. Who is going to respond when you're being held at gunpoint? If anything, funding for more training, helping them learn how - perhaps how to do things differently.

FLORIDO: Interestingly, Steve, our poll also found that white Americans are much more likely to believe that after this summer, police will start to treat Black people better. Almost three-quarters of white respondents said they believed that, but fewer than half of Black people who responded to our poll said they believe that. Here is Jay Baptist, a Black graduate student in Florida, talking about this divide.

JAY BAPTIST: They don't live in the type of environments that we do, so they don't see what we experience face to face. If they were to, like, just live in our little world, in our bubble, then I really would think their eyes would be open.

FLORIDO: And, Steve, just looking at this shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin this week, it's another reason many Black people said they don't feel optimistic about their treatment at the hands of police going forward.

INSKEEP: OK, Adrian Florido with some poll results. Adrian, thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

FLORIDO: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.