The throngs of protesters demanding systemic changes in policing are marching directly into one of the deepest chasms between the two political parties.
The belief that widespread racism is no longer a problem in American society has become one of the core convictions uniting the modern Republican coalition, especially in the Donald Trump era, polls have found. Several academic studies found the belief that discrimination against minorities (and women) is no longer a problem was a far better predictor of support for Trump in 2016 than economic anxiety.
Democrats of all races, by contrast, are much more likely to say that discrimination against African Americans, including in their interactions with police, remains a structural feature of American society.
In surveys by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, Americans who support Trump were far more likely than those who don’t to say that police shootings of black men are only isolated incidents and to claim that discrimination against whites is now as great a problem as bias against minorities.
This contrast looms heavily over the partisan reaction to the current eruption of protest. Since George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis last month, a chorus of prominent conservative voices have insisted it is a “lie” to describe racial discrimination as a pervasive problem. And, while some polls conducted amid the upsurge of protest hint that more Republicans may see discrimination as a problem, generally the surveys have documented the persistence of a huge gap between the parties on the issue.
That divergence has big implications for both policy and politics. In policy terms, it helps explain why Trump’s Justice Department, while initiating an inquiry into the specific circumstances of Floyd’s death, has effectively shelved efforts under former President Barack Obama to examine systematic bias in city police departments through so-called pattern and practice investigations.
Appearing Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Attorney General William Barr rejected such an investigation of the Minneapolis Police Department and argued that while individual “bad cops” remain a problem in forces around the country, “I don’t think that the law enforcement system is systemically racist.”
Politically, the heightened focus on police behavior and racial inequities more broadly could compel Trump to squeeze out bigger margins and turnout from the white constituencies most skeptical that racism remains a widespread problem, in order to offset what could be a further decline in November among the groups in all races that do consider bias an enduring blight on American life. In that way, this latest crisis could force Trump to further double down on the underlying political bet he is imposing on the GOP: squeezing bigger margins from shrinking groups at the price of alienating groups in society that are growing.
Brian Schaffner, a political scientist at Tufts University who has conducted some of the central research on the role of racist and sexist attitudes in the 2016 vote, says that prospect leaves Trump navigating a very thin path. Comparing the election results in 2018 with those in 2016, his research found that House Republican candidates lost more ground among voters who agree that racism and sexism remain problems than they gained among those who do not.
“In 2018, Republican House candidates paid a pretty significant penalty for being tied to his racist and sexist views,” Schaffner says. Trump faces the same risk in November, he believes.
Partisan opinion gap emerges — and widens
American public opinion about race is complex and contradictory, and, particularly among whites, it has not moved in a straight line. But the general pattern is that for decades most Americans, especially whites, concluded — despite evidence to the contrary — that the civil rights revolution of the 1960s defanged racial discrimination and created a situation in which African Americans had equal opportunity with whites.
In Gallup polling, the share of Americans who said blacks had as good a chance as whites in their community to be hired for a job rose from 43% in 1963 to 67% by 1978; among whites the number jumped from 46% to 73% over that period. Over the next 30 years, the share of Americans who said blacks had equal opportunities with whites drifted slightly higher in Gallup polling, reaching nearly four-fifths overall (and slightly above four-fifths among whites) in 2009 after Barack Obama’s election as the first African American president.
The venerable General Social Survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, an independent research organization, tracked similar trends. It found the share of whites who said that discrimination primarily explained the economic gaps between whites and blacks fell from around two-fifths during the late 1970s to 32% or less from 2006 to 2014, according to results provided by Tom W. Smith, who directs the General Social Survey.
But beginning in Obama’s second term and continuing under Trump, polling by Gallup, the NORC and the Pew Research Center all shows a general uptick in concern about racial discrimination. The share of Americans who say blacks have an equal chance with whites in job opportunities fell from about four-fifths in 2009 to three-fifths in 2018, Gallup found.
In a 2019 Pew poll, the share of all Americans who said blacks are treated less fairly in encounters with the police and in the criminal justice system reached about two-thirds. During Obama’s second term, Gallup had found that only about one-third to two-fifths of Americans agreed with those propositions.
Part of this movement was driven by a growing conviction among African Americans that they faced unrelieved discrimination. But whites also displayed substantial movement on these questions. In the General Social Survey, the share of whites who say discrimination primarily explains black-white differences rose from its low point of 27% in 2004 to 40% by 2018. Pew’s 2019 poll found that fully three-fifths of whites now believe both police and the criminal justice system treat African Americans less fairly.
The partisan numbers on these individual questions vary somewhat, but Pew and other studies have found the general movement in this decade toward greater concern about racial inequities among whites has been driven almost entirely by Democrats, with very little change among Republicans.
The result of these divergent trends is, as on so many other issues, a widening of what I call the trench between the blue and red coalitions.
“We have had this partisan sorting along the lines of race happening for a really long time … but what’s happening today is kind of unprecedented,” says Ashley Jardina, a political scientist at Duke University and author of the 2019 book “White Identity Politics.” “What we are seeing really in the last couple of years is this pretty dramatic separation of the parties.”
In the 2019 Pew study, less than half as many white Republicans as white Democrats said blacks are treated unfairly by the police or the criminal justice system, and the partisan gap was even bigger on hiring and the ability to access credit. Four-fifths of white Republicans said that people seeing discrimination where it doesn’t exist is a bigger problem than people not seeing it where it does; four-fifths of white Democrats took the opposite position. Among all Republicans, more than twice as many said lack of motivation, rather than racial discrimination, was a “major reason” more African Americans don’t get ahead; Democrats divided more than 3-to-1 the other way.
The PRRI polls underline a similar separation. In 2019, its polling found that 68% of Americans who approve of Trump say that discrimination against whites is as great a problem as discrimination against minorities; three-fourths of those who disapproved of Trump rejected that view. In 2018 polling, PRRI likewise found that nearly four-fifths of those favorable to Trump said police killings of black men were isolated incidents; almost three-fourths of those unfavorable to Trump said they are part of a broader pattern. On both of these questions, white evangelical Christians — the core of the modern GOP coalition — were especially likely to deny the existence of systemic racism against blacks.
Taking the longer view, the General Social Survey found in the late 1970s that Democrats were 8 percentage points more likely than Republicans to blame racial disparities on discrimination; by 2018, the gap had reached 36 points.
View shapes civil rights policy
The few national polls conducted since Floyd’s death offer some hints that Republican attitudes may be shifting. But mostly they capture the durability of the trench between the parties. In both CBS and Monmouth University polls last week, only about one-fourth of Republicans, compared with more than four-fifths of Democrats, said police were more likely to use excessive force against blacks. In a national NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey, three-fifths of Republicans called the demonstrations riots, while more than four-fifths of Democrats and about two-thirds of independents described them as protests.
Conservative voices have been quick to reject the idea that Floyd’s death highlights systematic bias in the nation broadly or even in policing. The chairman and president of the conservative Claremont Institute last week issued a statement declaring flatly: “The pretext for this entire nationwide riot is that America is a racist country. That is not true. … The reckless charge that American law enforcement is ‘systemically racist’ is also not true.” So many Americans, they continued, believe “this lie” only because it “has been preached by our universities and media like the Gospel for a generation.”
Peter Kirsanow, a Republican on the independent US Commission on Civil Rights, likewise wrote last week that “the riots are a result of the narrative that the Floyd and [Ahmaud] Arbery killings are but the latest of increasing examples of innocent blacks being disproportionately shot by white cops and targeted by racist white civilians. … The narrative is false.”
Barr, to CBS on Sunday, similarly discounted the idea that Floyd’s death revealed deeper problems. “All organizations have people who engage in misconduct, and you sometimes have to be careful as for when you ascribe that to the whole organization and when it really is some errant member who isn’t following the rules,” he said. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf echoed that claim Sunday on ABC.
These common views among conservatives aren’t just rhetorical or political arguments; they have also shaped the Trump administration’s response to civil rights enforcement. While Trump has directed the Justice Department and FBI to investigate Floyd’s death, it has shelved the more systematic pattern and practice investigations of police misconduct that the Obama administration used to reach judicial consent decrees that required structural changes in a dozen police departments around the country. (Barr said Sunday that such an investigation was not necessary in Minneapolis.)
That contrast reflects the underlying belief among Trump and many Republicans that “the issue isn’t policing; the issue is ‘bad apples,'” says Ed Chung, a former prosecutor in the Justice Department’s civil rights division who is now vice president for criminal justice reform at the liberal Center for American Progress. “They will go after bad apples and they think that will solve the problems. But this is a systemic issue. … You can’t just look at bad apples, you have to look at systems.”
Civil rights groups point the same critique at the Trump administration’s retreat from broad-reaching civil rights investigations into issues from fair housing to voting rights to how minority students are treated in school.
Trump’s reelection chances could be affected
Schaffner, the political scientist, says there is “a lot to unpack” to understand why many whites, primarily but not entirely in the GOP, reject the idea that discrimination is an ongoing problem.
“For one, it is uncomfortable to confront the facts of white privilege when you are benefiting from that privilege,” he said in an email. “And for whites who are also struggling economically, there is an appeal to political rhetoric that blames their lot in life on liberals who are designing policies to help racial and ethnic minorities.”
Trump has relentlessly stoked those sentiments throughout his presidency. And while he’s expressed concern about Floyd’s death, he, like Barr, hasn’t attributed it to any systemic bias in society (or even in policing). That’s been a stark contrast with presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s calls for action against “the deep open wound of systemic racism,” as he put it in a speech to the Texas Democratic Party on Saturday.
In any case, Trump’s comments about Floyd have been almost completely eclipsed by his militant response to the protests themselves, as he’s declared himself “your President of law and order,” urged governors and mayors to crack down more harshly and deployed massive federal forces against demonstrators in the streets of Washington.
Trump’s call for law and order and appeals to “the silent majority” echo President Richard Nixon’s rhetoric during the domestic disorder and violence that convulsed the 1968 presidential campaign, especially the racial unrest that followed the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. (Nixon was more nuanced than Trump, also calling for racial healing and flying to Atlanta for King’s funeral.)
If the violence accompanying some of the protests, which already has been ebbing, continues long enough, it might frighten some suburban and older white voters who have recoiled from Trump, some political analysts believe.
“One thing that we do know is that white Americans in the suburbs have not been historically very sympathetic to these protests over the long term. They are not sympathetic to rioting. They are not sympathetic to violence,” said Jardina. “So it could work out in Trump’s favor.”
But so far polls have shown that suburban and urban views about the unrest have largely converged — and in a very different place from the perspective in rural areas where Trump is strongest. The PBS/NPR/Marist poll released last week found that suburban and urban voters largely agreed that police don’t treat blacks equally, that the demonstrations were mostly legitimate protests and, by overwhelming margins, that Trump has inflamed rather than diminished tensions. In each instance, rural voters took much more conservative positions.
Matt McDermott, a Democratic pollster, said such results capture the paradox in Trump’s calls for law and order: His words and actions have been so confrontational that they are “leading people to conclude the Republican President is increasing the threat of violence to themselves and their community.” Trump’s uniquely belligerent posture, McDermott says, is fraying the GOP’s traditional advantage among suburbanites on keeping their communities safe.
One GOP pollster I spoke with, who asked not to be identified while discussing the party’s 2020 prospects, agreed that Trump’s response to the protests was likely to further erode his already tenuous position among college-educated white suburbanites, especially women. That will require him, the pollster said, to generate even bigger margins and more turnout from non-college whites, especially those outside of metropolitan areas.
That’s not impossible: Non-college whites represent about half or more of the eligible voters who did not turn out in 2016 in key battleground states across the Midwest, including Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. But Schaffner and others say Trump’s effort to mobilize more whites who discount the existence of bias could cost him at least as many votes among whites who see discrimination as a continuing problem, to say nothing of its potential impact on energizing black turnout.
“It’s impossible to say for sure,” Schaffner. “But it seems to me that there aren’t many more votes for Trump to win over by emphasizing the racist appeals.”
As he brusquely demands tougher crackdowns in the streets, Trump seems determined to test that proposition.