White Perceptions of Discrimination

Not long ago, white respondents were willing to admit their support for racial discrimination to survey researchers. In the early 1940s, for example, 68 percent of whites nationwide said they thought blacks and whites should attend separate schools, 55 percent said whites should have priority over blacks in hiring, and 54 percent agreed that separate sections should be reserved for blacks and whites on buses and streetcars. By the 1960s, such segregationist attitudes had moderated considerably, with 30 percent of whites still favoring racially separate schools and 11 percent approving of white preferences in hiring. In 1970, 12 percent of whites admitted to favoring racial segregation in public transportation (Schuman et al., 1997).

In the years since the civil rights era ended, these percentages have fallen even further; fewer and fewer whites are willing to express open support for racial discrimination. By 1995, only 4 percent reported they believed that blacks and whites should attend separate schools, just 13 percent said there should be laws against black–white intermarriage (as late as 1963 the percentage was still 62 percent), and over 90 percent of whites endorsed the principle that blacks have a right to live wherever they can afford to live (Schuman et al., 1997). Although white support for racist principles had fallen to low levels, it had not disappeared entirely. As late as 1993, 15 percent of whites agreed that blacks should respect the rights of whites to exclude blacks from their neighborhoods if they so desire (Schuman et al., 1997).

Moreover, while fewer whites openly support principles of racial discrimination, many remain ambivalent in their attitudes about race. For instance, surveys show that only 13 percent of whites support a ban on black–white intermarriage, whereas 33 percent still disapprove of the practice personally. A mere 2 percent object to sending their children to a school where “a few” students are black, while 19 percent object to sending their children to one where half are black. Likewise, just 2 percent of whites said they would move out of their home if black neighbors moved in next door, but 25 percent said they would leave if blacks entered their neighborhood “in great numbers.” As of 1995, nearly a quarter of whites (23 percent) said they would object to having a black dinner guest (Schuman et al., 1997).

Ambivalent Attitudes About Race

At the end of the twentieth century, open support for principles of racial discrimination had fallen to very low levels among whites, with only 10 to 15 percent endorsing discriminatory actions or policies. Although whites may have come to support a nondiscriminatory society in principle, however, they remain substantially uneasy about its implications in practice.

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