There’s bad news and good news about Americans’ race relations and attitudes.
The bad news:
- People perceive race relations as worsening. In a 2019 Pew survey of 6637 Americans, 58 percent said that U.S. race relations are now “generally bad,” and 69 percent of those folks saw race relations as “getting worse.”
- The Trump effect? In the same survey, most (65 percent) said it has become more common for people to express racist or racially insensitive views since Donald Trump’s election.
- Hate groups are proliferating. The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified 1,020 hate groups—up 30 percent in four years. Such groups feed off dehumanizing views of other races (see here, here, and here).
- Hate crimes are rising. Although some criticize the SPLC’s hate-group definition, their report coincides with the FBI’s reported 17 percent increase in hate crimes just in 2017. Widely publicized hate crimes, such as the burning of three Louisiana Black churches in March and April of 2019, not to mention the recent synagogue attacks, will surely sustain the perception that Trump-era race relations are worsening.
But there is also good news: You likely already know that since the mid-twentieth century, support for school desegregation, equal employment opportunity, and interracial dating and marriage has soared to near-consensus—enabling a 2008 presidential election that Abraham Lincoln probably never imagined. Although most metropolitan areas remain substantially segregated, neighborhood integration has modestly increased since the century’s turn. But the even better news is that both explicit and implicit race prejudice have continued to decline.
This good news is reflected in Tessa Charlesworth and Mahzarin Banaji’s new report of nearly 2 million U.S. adults’ explicit and implicit racial attitudes. Since 2007, people’s explicit race attitudes—the extent to which they acknowledged preferring White to Black people—“moved toward neutrality by approximately 37 percent.” Implicit race attitudes—people’s faster speed when pairing negative words with Black faces (and positive words with White faces)—also moved toward neutrality, but with a slower 17 percent shift. (Charlesworth and Banaji also reported changed attitudes toward other social groups: Attitudes toward gay people made the swiftest progress toward neutrality, while negative implicit attitudes toward overweight people have actually increased.)
Are these hate-up, prejudice-down findings paradoxical—or even contradictory? Not necessarily. Much as extremes of income—both crushing poverty and excessive wealth—can rise even while average income is stable, so also can extremist racial attitudes increase while overall prejudice does not. Even within healthy communities, a viral disease can spread.
Charles Dickens, in A Tale of Two Cities, was prescient: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)