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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Public Opinion on Civil Rights 50 Years After the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Four of the five living U.S. presidents -- Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter -- are in Austin, Texas, this week commemorating the 50 year anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act.  They are in Austin because of the major role of President Lyndon Johnson in pushing the legislation through in the first months of his presidential administration in 1964. This legislation is still marked as one of the most significant developments in our nation's long history of race relations.

Herewith are eight important points about public opinion and civil rights based on a review of data and analyses from Gallup's archives. 

1. Contemporaneous reaction of the American public as a whole to the Civil Rights Act in 1964 was positive. Gallup editors conducted a review a few years ago and reminded us that a majority of Americans had positive attitudes about the new civil rights legislation both prior to and after its passage in 1964. Most relevantly, in two Gallup polls taken in the fall of 1964, clear majorities of 58% and 59% of Americans responded positively when asked this question: “As you know, a civil rights law was recently passed by Congress and signed by the president. In general, do you approve or disapprove of this law?” 

2. The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was assessed by Americans as the fifth-most important event of the entire 20th century. This was based on an elaborate research program we conducted late in 1999 (just as the century was coming to a close), with the objective of measuring Americans' views on news events of the past 100 years. The research consisted of open-ended questions probing what Americans thought was important off the top of their heads, followed by asking Americans to rate a list of the top 18 items uncovered by this procedure. The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was rated lower in importance than only five events: World War II, women gaining the right to vote in 1920, dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, and the Nazi Holocaust of World War II. The passage of the Civil Rights Act was rated as more important than such events of the last century as World War I, landing a man on the moon, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. 

3. A majority of Americans continue to believe that a solution to the race problem in this country will eventually be worked out, although blacks are somewhat less optimistic than whites. This conclusion is based on repeated asking of a question first asked about 50 years ago by the National Opinion Research Corporation (NORC): “Do you think that relations between blacks and whites will always be a problem for the United States, or that a solution will eventually be worked out?”  NORC found that 55% of those interviewed said that a solution would eventually be worked out. Gallup has updated that question in the years since. Attitudes have changed significantly over time, first in a more negative direction, including in particular a starkly negative poll conducted in 1995 after the O.J. Simpson verdict. After that, attitudes have become more positive. As of last summer, 58% of Americans said that a solution to relations between blacks and whites will eventually be worked out, while 40% said that it will always be a problem. 

Blacks are less positive than whites that a solution to the race problem will be worked out. Last summer blacks were 10 percentage points less positive -- with 49% of blacks saying that relations between blacks and whites will always be a problem, compared with 39% of whites.  

4. A majority of blacks living in the U.S. continue to say that new civil rights laws are needed to reduce discrimination against blacks. This percentage has changed over the years since 1993 when Gallup first asked the question, but a majority of blacks have always said that they believe new civil rights laws are needed to reduce discrimination against blacks. In 1993 we found that 70% of blacks said “yes” -- that new civil rights laws were needed. That number was at 53% early last summer in Gallup’s Minority Rights Poll before climbing last August in a survey conducted about a month after George Zimmerman was acquitted on all counts in the death of Trayvon Martin.

U.S. whites don’t agree on the necessity of passing new laws. In a pre-Zimmerman poll conducted last year, in which 53% of blacks said that new laws were necessary, only 17% of whites agreed. The views of Hispanics were closer to those of blacks, with 46% saying that new laws were necessary.  

5. Most blacks agree that civil rights for blacks have improved over their lifetimes. Last summer, in two separate surveys, 25% to 29% of blacks said that civil rights for blacks had “greatly” improved and 52% to 53% said they had somewhat improved over their lifetimes. That left just 7% to 9% who said that civil rights for blacks had worsened over their lifetimes. Whites were significantly more positive in their views of the state of civil rights for blacks.

6. A majority of blacks feel that the government should play a “major” role in trying to improve the social and economic position of blacks and other minority groups in this country.  The exact percentage who feel this way has varied some over the years, but has always been a majority, rising to 63% last August after the Zimmerman verdict. Whites are much less likely to agree that the government should play a major role.

7. A majority of blacks in the U.S. perceive that economic racial inequality is due to "something else" and not mostly due to discrimination. Gallup first asked the question on which this conclusion is based in 1993: “On the average, blacks have worse jobs, income, and housing than whites. Do you think this is mostly due to discrimination against blacks, or is it mostly due to something else?” The percentage of blacks who say “mostly something else” has gone from 48% then to to 60% early last summer. Whites have significantly stronger views on this issue, with 83% saying that racial economic inequality in the U.S. today is due to “something else” and not mostly due to discrimination. Interestingly, younger black Americans are less likely to view racial inequality as the result of discrimination than older blacks, particularly blacks 55 years of age and older.  

8. At this juncture in history, blacks are significantly more satisfied with the way things are going in the United States than whites. This question doesn't deal with race or civil rights per se, but is a broad indicator of overall views of the direction the country is taking. In a combined sample of the last two monthly Gallup Poll Social Series surveys conducted in March and April of this year, 43% of blacks said they were satisfied with the way things are going in the United States, compared with 20% of whites. This is almost certainly an “Obama” effect. In March 2008, in the last year of the Bush administration, blacks were less satisfied than whites. This reflects in large part the heavily Democratic partisan identification of blacks in this country, since Democrats in general are more satisfied with the way things are going with a fellow Democrat in the White House. But blacks are about three points more satisfied than Democrats on the whole at this point.    

Conclusion. Some fifty years after the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, a majority of blacks in the U.S. perceive that additional civil rights legislation is needed, and that the government should take a significant role in improving the social and economic position of blacks. At the same time, blacks perceive that there has been significant progress in civil rights in their lifetimes. There is a racial divide in these views, with whites in general less likely to say that new legislation is needed.


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