As Nation Reckons With Race, Poll Finds White Americans Least Engaged

Anti-Black racism had always bothered John Collins, but he’d never personally done anything about it.

That changed after police killed George Floyd in May.

Stuck at home and furloughed from work because of the pandemic, Collins had time to watch coverage of the protests Floyd’s death had set off and to reflect on the nation’s history of racial injustice.

“The more you see it the more it boils inside,” said Collins, 63, who is white and lives in Central Florida. “And I guess the boiling inside just kind of said, what can you do?”

Collins sympathized with the people marching in the protests, but felt “I’m not that type of person.” So instead, he called and wrote his representatives in Congress and asked what they were doing to address racism in the country. He didn’t hear back, “but I still thought it was important to do.”

As the nation navigates its most consequential racial justice movement in a half a century, people have responded to the calls for action to remedy the country’s racist past and present by protesting in the streets or doing something as simple as reading a book about race. But a new NPR/Ipsos poll finds that these people remain a minority.

Though advocates believe true equality will not be achieved until all Americans are willing to grapple with racism, the survey showed that just 36% of Americans said they had taken concrete action to better understand racial issues after George Floyd’s killing.

White people were the least likely to have done so, at just 30%. That compares with 51% of Latinos, 49% of Asians, and 41% of Black people who answered “Yes” when asked: “Since the death of George Floyd in May, have you personally taken any actions to better understand racial issues in America?”

White Americans were also least likely to report having attended a protest or rally following George Floyd’s death. Seven percent said they had, compared with 13% of Black Americans, 11% of Latinos, and 8% of Asian Americans.

These data points, along with others in the poll, offers insight into the extent to which the ongoing protest movement has moved Americans to tackle issues of racial justice or won them over to some of the demands that have emerged from the protests. It found that perceptions, opinions and engagement continue to be split along racial lines, and that deep fissures remain.

“Most Americans acknowledge that there is racism built into American systems,” said Ipsos pollster Mallory Newall, but, “at the core there is still a significant gap in willingness to do the work between white Americans and people of color.”

The poll found that 58% of Americans acknowledge that racism is built into the American economy, government, and education systems. That includes half of white Americans, though they were less likely than any racial group to believe so.

The poll was conducted from Aug. 20-21 and surveyed 1,186 adults in the continental United States, Alaska and Hawaii.

White Americans were also the least likely to support the Black Lives Matter movement, with 48% expressing support. By contrast, 73% of Black respondents supported the movement, while 59% of Latinos and Asians did.

Among those who said they did not support the movement was Dee Weiler, a white retired neuropsychologist who lives in the mountains of Northeast Georgia.

“What about the Hispanics? What about the Indians? What about us? The Caucasians?” she asked. “So no, I have a big problem with how the movement is being portrayed and encouraged.”

She said she believes the Black Lives Matter movement is divisive, an argument offered up by many conservatives, including President Trump, who Weiler supports. Weiler also called “ridiculous” one of the demands that has gained traction within the movement: to defund police departments and reallocate money to social service programs.

In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, the City Council pledged to disband the police department in favor of alternative public safety solutions. Though the proposal has stalled, the council has said it remains committed to the change, and the move has emboldened activists in other cities to push for similar reforms.

But the racial divide on that issue is wide, the NPR/Ipsos poll found.

Only 37% of white Americans said they support redirecting funding from their police department toward social services.

Among Black Americans, 69% were in support, as were two-thirds of Latinos and 58% of Asians.

At the same time, white Americans were significantly more optimistic than Black, Latino and Asian Americans that police treatment of Black people will improve.

Fewer than half of Black respondents said they thought police would start treating Black people better, while nearly three-quarters of white respondents did.

Jay Baptist, a Black 28-year-old graduate student living in West Palm Beach, said it did not surprise her that white people were more optimistic.

“They don’t live in the type of environments that we do. So they don’t see what we experience face to face,” she said. “So I think that’s why they think like that. But if they were to live in our little world, our little bubble, then I really think their eyes would be open to what’s actually going to happen.”

For some respondents, last weekend’s shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., seemed to justify their skepticism that police relations with Black Americans will improve. On Friday, the families of many of the Black people killed by police in recent years will lead a march on Washington demanding change.

NPR’s poll also found:

– Thirty-eight percent of all respondents said they thought Joe Biden was bringing the country closer to racial equality, while 20% said they thought Donald Trump was.

– Fifty-five percent of white Americans said the COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted greater damage on communities of color, compared to roughly 70% of Blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans who thought so.

– The biggest disagreement between white and Black Americans was on the issue of reparations. Eighty percent of Black Americans said they believe the federal government should compensate the descendants of enslaved people, while 21% of white Americans did.

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