Since the nation’s birth, Americans have discussed race and avoided it, organized neighborhoods and political movements around it, and used it to divide and hurt people even as relations have improved dramatically since the days of slavery, Reconstruction and legal segregation.
Now, in what could be a historic year for a black presidential candidate, a new Associated Press-Yahoo! News poll, conducted with Stanford University, shows just how wide a gap remains between whites and blacks.
It shows that a substantial portion of white Americans still harbor negative feelings toward blacks. It shows that blacks and whites disagree tremendously on how much racial prejudice exists, whose fault it is and how much influence blacks have in politics.
One result is that Barack Obama’s path to the presidency is steeper than it would be if he were white.
Until now, social scientists have not closely examined racial sentiments on a nationwide scale at a moment when race is central to choosing the next president. The poll, which featured a large sample of Americans — more than 2,200 — and sophisticated survey techniques rarely used in media surveys, reflected the complexity, change and occasional contradictions of race relations.
More whites apply positive attributes to blacks than negative ones, and blacks are even more generous in their descriptions of whites. Racial prejudice is lower among college-educated whites living outside the South. And many whites who think most blacks are somewhat lazy, violent or boastful are willing or even eager to vote for Obama over Republican John McCain, who is white.
The poll, however, shows that blacks and whites see racial discrimination in starkly different terms. When asked “how much discrimination against blacks” exists, 10 percent of whites said “a lot” and 45 percent said “some.”
Among blacks, 57 percent said “a lot” and all but a fraction of the rest said “some.”
Asked how much of America’s existing racial tension is created by blacks, more than one-third of white respondents said “most” or “all,” and 9 percent said “not much.” Only 3 percent of blacks said “most” or “all,” while half said “not much at all.”
Nearly three-fourths of blacks said white people have too much influence in American politics. Only 12 percent of whites agreed. Almost three times as many blacks as whites said blacks have too little influence.
Far more blacks than whites say government officials “usually pay less attention to a request or complaint from a black person than a white person.”
One in five whites have felt admiration for blacks “very” or “extremely” often. Seventy percent of blacks have felt the same about whites.
The poll may surprise those who thought Obama’s appeal to young voters proves Americans in their 20s and 30s are clearly less racially biased than their parents. The survey found no meaningful differences among age groups in whites’ perceptions of blacks, although older whites appear more likely to discuss their views.
Some findings fall into the glass half-empty or half-full category. One-fourth of white Democrats ascribed at least two negative attributes to blacks. But two-thirds of those Democrats said they will vote for Obama.
That finding alone could nourish a debate about how much harm is done by racial prejudices that seem to have modest influence on how people behave.
Kelly Edmondson, 34, of Cincinnati, is a white Democrat enthusiastic about backing Obama. The country needs a new direction, she said, and “I feel like he can reach a lot of people.”
She cares for her two sets of young twins during the day and teaches college at night; most of her students are black. In the survey, Edmondson said positive words such as “hardworking” and “intelligent” describe most blacks “very well.” She said a few negative traits, such as “lazy” and “irresponsible,” apply “somewhat well” to most blacks.
In a telephone interview, Edmondson said those attributes apply equally to all races. She fretted that some of her fellow Ohioans might be less candid, privately planning to vote for McCain when they publicly say they are “on the fence.”
“I worry about that,” she said.
Polls consistently show Obama running about even with McCain, or leading by a notably smaller margin than the one Democrats enjoy over Republicans in most generic surveys about which party is best suited to govern.
The AP-Yahoo News poll suggests that racial prejudice could cost Obama up to 6 percentage points this fall. That’s a big hurdle in a nation whose last two presidential elections were decided by much smaller margins.
Charles Crozier, 73, of Marietta, Ga., said he is a “quasi-independent” Democrat who is undecided on the presidential contest. He likes McCain on energy issues, including his call for more nuclear energy. But he prefers Obama’s stands on economic issues.
Crozier, who is white, said race is not a factor in his thinking. He said he’s not sure “how much of an issue it is for (other) people” in his community. It frustrates him to hear people incorrectly state that Obama (who is Christian) is a Muslim because they read it on the Internet.
“I’m old enough to know a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth,” Crozier said. “You can’t change their minds.”
Racial progress in America is undeniable on many fronts. But millions of white and black Americans still barely interact at all, bringing the very term “race relations” into question.
“There’s still a lot of estrangement out there” between the races, said David Bositis, who writes about racial matters at the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “There’s still an enormous amount of segregation.”
Even with sophisticated polls, it’s hard to measure the progress, or lack of progress, in race relations.
“The prior forms of racism, with hindsight, were relatively easy to deal with,” said Kenneth O’Reilly, who has written books on racial politics and now teaches history at Milwaukee Area Technical College. He cited slavery, lynchings and legal and de facto segregation.
Now, he said, racial prejudices and grievances are more subtle. “If you ask 100 people what is the main color line problem today,” he said, “you get 100 answers.”
The AP-Yahoo News poll of 2,227 adults was conducted Aug. 27-Sept. 5, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.1 percentage points. It was designed to plumb people’s racial attitudes, and particularly how those attitudes affect voting.
The survey used the unique methodology of Knowledge Networks, of Menlo Park, Calif., including questions about how well words like “friendly” or “violent” describe blacks; having respondents type sensitive answers into computers, which tends to make them more honest; and using brief flashes of faces of people of different races to detect that people may not be aware they have.
Stanford University political scientist Paul Sniderman said that in today’s society, racial prejudice “is a deep challenge, and it’s one that Americans in general, and for that matter, political scientists, just haven’t been ready to acknowledge fully.”
For minority candidates such as Obama, he said, “there’s a penalty for prejudice, and it’s not trivial.” If the presidential contest remains close, he said, racial prejudice “might be enough to tip the election.”