Despite largely holding the political, economic and social levers of power, nearly a third of white Americans say they have seen “a lot more” discrimination against white people in the past five years – and more than half of them say they have not seen a rise in discrimination against Black and Latino Americans.
A May 2022 University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll further found that a majority of white Americans do not believe that there has been a rise in discrimination against minority groups.
In stark contrast, the poll found a large majority of Black Americans believe they have been on the receiving end of discrimination.
That many white Americans, the dominant racial group in U.S. society, see more discrimination against other white people than those who have historically endured this treatment is troubling.
In our view as scholars of public opinion and identity politics, these grievances have been at the heart of conservative GOP politics and at their extreme have played a role in mass shootings such as the one in Buffalo in which 10 Black people were killed, allegedly by an 18-year-old white supremacist, or the violent assault that occurred on Jan. 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol.
Empathy gaps among racial groups
The poll was conducted between May 6 and May 16, 2022, by polling firm Nielsen Scarborough from a nationally representative sample of 2,091 respondents, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.14.
The poll asked questions on how much more discrimination exists now than in the past against different minority groups, and whether different minority groups weaken or strengthen American society.
The results are striking.
There is a clear empathy gap across racial and ethnic groups.
While white Americans say they have seen an increase in discrimination against other whites, they say at the same time that other groups, including Black and Latino Americans, have been less discriminated against.
In stark contrast, Black and Latino Americans say their groups have been discriminated against while also saying that other groups have also been highly discriminated against.
In the case of Latino Americans, they believe that Asians have been discriminated against even more than their own group.
The empathy gap is even larger when viewed through political partisanship, especially among white and Latino Americans.
Assessing racial experiences
We examined responses among white, Black and Latino people to the following question: “Compared to five years ago, and based on your own experience, including interactions with others, how much racial/ethnic/religious discrimination, if any, would you say exists against each of the following groups?”
We found that 3 in 10 white respondents – 30.1% – say that white Americans experienced “a lot more” discrimination in the past five years.
In comparison, 28.9% of white respondents said Asian Americans experience “a lot more” discrimination, 21.7% said the same of Jewish Americans, 20.4% about Black Americans, 19.7% about Muslim Americans and 14.7% about Latino Americans.
But over half of Black Americans – 53.2% – say that their group has encountered “a lot more” discrimination in the past five years, compared with 38.9% of Black respondents who said the same about Asian Americans, 33.3% about Latino Americans, 29.3% about Muslim Americans, 23.7% about Jewish Americans and 13% about white Americans.
More Latino people say they saw “a lot more” discrimination against Asian people than against other groups. Nearly 2 in 5 – 38.7% – of Latino respondents said that “a lot more” discrimination exists against Asian Americans than five years ago. That number compares with 41.2% who said the same about Black Americans, 34.5% about Latino Americans, 33.5% about Muslim Americans and 20% about Jewish Americans.
Notably, and unlike white and Black people, Latino Americans say that both Black and Asian people have endured “a lot more” discrimination in the past five years than their own group.
Perceptions of contributions to American society
We also gauged people’s opinions about whether they thought Black Americans, Asian Americans, Latino Americans, Muslim Americans and Jewish Americans strengthened or weakened American society.
The findings show that a majority of white, Black and Latino people believe that all these groups strengthen American society, with one exception.
Only 40.1% of white Americans believe that Muslim Americans strengthen American society.
Slightly more than 20% of white people say that Muslim Americans weaken traditional American values and customs, the highest expression of this negative sentiment for any group.
A lower percentage of white people view Black Americans – 12.4% – and Latino Americans – 9.8% – as weakening American values and customs in comparison with these attitudes about Muslim Americans.
Both Black Americans – 67% – and Latino Americans – 74.1% – view their groups as having the greatest effect in strengthening American society.
Notably, 54.6% of Black Americans view Latinos as strengthening American society, and 61.1% of Latino Americans say the same about Blacks.
Impact of partisanship
Americans are deeply divided along partisan lines, and this division can be seen on most issues.
But does this divide also affect racial and ethnic groups’ attitudes?
To be sure, there are significant overlaps.
Most Black and Latino Americans are Democrats, and far more white Americans identify as Republicans than as Democrats.
But while Black Americans overwhelmingly identify as Democrats, about a quarter of Latinos identify as Republicans, and the Republican Party mostly comprises white voters.
We examined the extent to which partisanship helps explain racial and ethnic identity on attitudes about other groups.
The findings were revealing. White Democrats are closer in their views on race to Black and Latino Democrats than they are to white Republicans.
White Democrats are more likely to perceive greater discrimination against other groups than they did five years ago.
Latino Republicans are closer to white Republicans than they are to Latino Democrats.
About two-thirds of Black Republicans – 65% – and a third of Latino Republican respondents – 33% – perceive “a lot more” discrimination against white Americans than five years ago. However, we are careful not to draw strong conclusions from our Black Republican sample, as it is relatively small in our survey.
Partisanship also plays an important role in accounting for differences in the perceived value of minority groups in society among white, Latino and Black Americans.
In contrast, over two-thirds of white Democrats say that all five groups strengthen American society. White Republicans are much less likely to say any of the five minority groups strengthen American society.
A higher percentage of Latino Republicans view minority groups as strengthening America than do white Republicans. But this view among Latino Republicans lags in comparison with Latino Democrats.
The Black Republicans who did respond expressed strong sentiments about the idea that minority groups strengthen American society – a view that goes against trends among white Republicans.
Black Republican responses look more similar to those of Black Democrats.
This finding requires further investigation with a larger sample of Black Republicans.
It is worth acknowledging that party affiliation has become partly a reflection of one’s identity and comfort with certain positions, especially about one’s place in American society.
In other words, partisanship has become an identity in and of itself.
Our findings may point to the difficulty in having conversations about race relations that start from a common perspective, and engaging in meaningful action that will strengthen American democracy.
A notable result from our poll is the empathy exhibited by groups who have historically experienced high degrees of discrimination.
Black and Latino Americans have similar perceptions about discrimination.
More importantly, they support the idea that a democratic America embraces all its constituents and view all minority groups as being a strength rather than a weakness – a view not as strongly shared by white Americans.
Stella Rouse, Professor of Government and Politics and Director of the Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement, University of Maryland and Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, University of Maryland