A new poll by Reuters/Ipsos, in conjunction with the University of Virginia Center for Politics, examines Americans' attitudes about race. The results, from a survey of approximately 5,360 respondents between August 21 and September 5, appear mixed. As those conducting the poll put it: "while there is relatively little national endorsement of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, there are troubling levels of support for certain racially charged ideas and attitudes frequently expressed by extremist groups." Their results suggest cause for concern about the direction of race relations in America, as well as questions about how far we have come.

Let's begin with what looks like good news.

Seven in 10 respondents (70%) strongly agreed that people of different races should be “free to live wherever they choose” and that “all races are equal” (70%), with only 2% and 4% of respondents strongly disagreeing, respectively.

A large percentage (89%) agreed that all races should be treated equally, even as 11% answered otherwise: 3% disagreed, 5% neither agreed nor disagreed, and 3% said they didn’t know.

This paints a picture of broad agreement about racial equality. But it's not clear how well this picture holds up in the face of the rest of the data.

Among the findings highlighted by the researchers are some that suggest rather broad support for central tenets of white nationalism, of the sort promoted by the marchers at the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, VA, in early August.

14% of all respondents both 1) agreed that white people are under attack and 2) disagreed with the statement that nonwhites are under attack.

Nearly one-third of respondents (31%) strongly or somewhat agreed that the country needs to 'protect and preserve its White European heritage.' Another third (34%) strongly or somewhat disagreed with the statement, and 29% neither agreed nor disagreed.

The preservation and protection of white identity is central to ideology of the "alt-right."

Anthony Crider/Flickr
Source: Anthony Crider/Flickr

Looking into the data in more depth, those conducting the poll found that respondents who neither agreed nor disagreed with statements, such as the above, were "more likely to have views that leaned more toward intolerance than away from it." For example, they are less likely to think minorities are under attack in America or to support equal treatment of all races. This suggests that the ideology of the "alt-right" may have even more widespread currency than the data immediately suggests. These neither/nor respondents may be receptive to much of the white nationalist agenda.

This is especially worrisome in our current political climate, where this agenda is becoming more normalized. When behavior that was perceived to be socially disapproved of comes to be perceived as more acceptable, people are less inhibited from acting on their desires to engage in it. Thus, for instance, people who would not previously have thought to chant racist and anti-semitic slogans in public become more inclined to do so; people are more likely to support overtly racist or xenophobic policies; and children feel emboldened to pick on those who do not look like them. Those who do not espouse allegiance to white nationalism may, in the present context, drift further in that direction. Not only may their views on matters of racial equality harden in the direction of white supremacy, but their overt behavior and political preferences may as well. It is not out of the question that a poll of this sort conducted in the near future would find even more over support for the ideology of the "alt-right."

Even if not surprising, it would certainly be disheartening if our country were taking steps back in the realm of race relations. Yet it looks like that's what's happening. It was only in the middle of the last century that racial segregation was legally abolished. And there are signs that we are heading in that direction once again.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll appears to corroborate this.

Fifty years after the United States Supreme Court struck down bans on mixed-race marriage in Loving v. Virginia, about one-sixth of respondents (16%) agreed with the statement that “marriage should only be allowed between two people of the same race” and an additional 14% neither agreed nor disagreed with the statement, while 4% said they didn’t know. In total, about a third failed to express tolerance of interracial marriage. Among whites, 17% agreed that marriage should be restricted to the same race, with 15% neither agreeing nor disagreeing. This was slightly higher than nonwhites (15% agreed, 12% neither agreed nor disagreed).

It's not entirely clear what's driving these sentiments. Similar percentages of whites and non-whites were against interracial marriage, and similar percentages neither agreed nor disagreed with the statement about same-race marriage. It may be hasty to chalk up these sentiments to white supremacy. But it may be equally hasty to dismiss this as a possible explanation. After all, what explains these attitudes in whites may be different from what explains them in non-whites.

It could be that white respondents who were against interracial marriage were motivated by concerns about so-called "white genocide" and preserving the "purity" of their race. In other words, they may have been motivated by white supremacy. This would be consistent with non-whites agreeing that people should marry within their race as a reaction to what they perceive as the prevalence and pitfalls of white supremacy. These respondents may have been motivated by concerns about the racial attitudes of whites. If this were so, then opposition to interracial marriage in both groups would, ultimately, be explained by white supremacy. The data doesn't settle the question. More work is needed to find out what's really going on here.

Nevertheless, the data from this poll suggest that race relations in America are not in a good place. (And in this, it is not alone.) Of course, there is nothing novel about this claim. But it bears repeating, over and over again if necessary. Things won't get better until we collectively recognize that we have a problem and commit, seriously, to do something about it. Moreover, it appears that the language of equality and freedom, often so central to our national political discourse, may only serve to occlude how Americans really feel about race. The work ahead will require confronting the messy truth about our attitudes toward each other.

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