Over the past year, there has been a substantial rise in the share of Americans — across racial and ethnic groups — who say the country needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites, and a growing number of Americans view racism as a big problem in society.
Today, 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, roughly six-in-ten Americans (59%) say the country needs to continue making changes to achieve racial equality, while 32% say the country has made the changes needed to give blacks equal rights with whites. A year ago — and at previous points in the last six years — public opinion was much more closely divided on this question.
Though a substantial racial divide in these views remains, a majority of whites (53%) now say more needs to be done. Last year, just 39% of whites said this. And although large majorities of African Americans have consistently said that changes must continue to be made to achieve racial equality, the share saying this now (86%) is greater than in the past.
At the same time, there is a more widespread sense among the public that racism in society is a significant problem. Currently, 50% say that racism is a big problem in our society today. Five years ago, just 33% of Americans identified racism as a big problem, and in January 2009, only about a quarter (26%) said this.
Nearly three-quarters of African Americans (73%) now characterize racism as a big problem, along with 58% of Hispanics. Although whites are far less likely to say racism is a big problem (44%), the share of whites expressing this view has risen 17 points since 2010.
This shift in public opinion is seen across the board. Growing shares in all regions of the country, and across all demographic and partisan groups say both that racism is a big problem and that more needs to be done to achieve racial equality. Still, significant partisan divides remain on these questions, with Republicans less likely than Democrats to hold these views.
The latest national survey by Pew Research Center, conducted July 14-20, 2015 among 2,002 adults, also finds that the Confederate flag continues to raise complicated emotions following a national debate sparked by the use of the flag’s imagery by the gunman in a racially motivated killing of nine African Americans in a Charleston, S.C. church in June.
Clearly, the debate over the flag has resonated strongly with the public: 89% have heard about the debate, including 64% who have heard a lot about it.
Most Americans (57%) support the recent decision by South Carolina’s government to remove the flag from the statehouse grounds; 34% see this as the wrong decision. Though majorities of whites (56%), blacks (76%) and Hispanics (52%) say the flag’s removal was the right decision, there are more substantial partisan divides: Fully 74% of Democrats say this was the right decision, while Republicans are more divided (43% right decision, 49% wrong decision).
When asked an open-ended question about their feelings on South Carolina’s decision, about a third (36%) of those who view removing the flag as the right decision cite the flag’s association with racism, hatred or slavery, while 20% say the flag is offensive or divisive. Among those who say the decision to remove the flag was wrong, most (54%) mention the flag’s historical significance, while 27% volunteer that it is a misunderstood symbol (including 20% who say that it is wrongly cast as a symbol of hatred, racism or slavery) .
People’s reactions to seeing the Confederate flag displayed are little different from opinions four years ago, on the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. A majority (56%) continues to say they have no particular reaction – either positive or negative – to the display of the Confederate flag. As was the case in 2011, negative reactions outnumber positive reactions (28% vs. 13%).
Although 42% of African Americans say they have a negative reaction to the display of the flag, about as many blacks say their reaction to seeing it is neither positive nor negative (49%). African American reactions to the flag are relatively unchanged from 2011.
Majorities of whites (56%) and Hispanics (62%) continue to say their reaction to the Confederate flag is neither positive nor negative. About a quarter (27%) of whites view it negatively; only 16% of whites have a positive reaction to the Confederate flag, but that is double the share who said this in 2011 (8%).
Majorities of Most Groups Say Equal Rights for Blacks Not Yet Achieved
Views about the country’s progress on equal rights have undergone a substantial shift from last year. By about two-to-one, Americans now say the country needs to continue making changes in order to give blacks equal rights with whites (59%), rather than that the necessary changes have already been made (32%).
Growing shares in all groups now say that more needs to be done to achieve racial equality, and there are no substantial age or educational differences on this question.
But not only do the long-standing gaps between blacks and whites remain (86% of blacks now say the country needs to continue to change, compared with 53% of whites), significant partisan and ideological divides on this question also persist.
Republicans are now divided on whether the country needs to make more changes to achieve racial equality (42% now say this, while 51% say the country has made the necessary changes), reflecting a shift in opinion: Last spring a clear majority (69%) felt that the necessary changes had been made, while just 27% said more needed to be done. Though the share of conservative Republicans who say the country needs to make changes to achieve racial equality has risen 16 points since 2014 (from 22% to 38%), they remain the only partisan group in which a majority says the necessary changes have been made (56%). Moderate and liberal Republicans are roughly split on this question: 50% say more needs to be done, 42% say the necessary changes have been made.
Fully 78% of Democrats say the country needs to continue to make changes to give blacks equal rights with whites, up 11 points from last year. Liberal Democrats, in particular, overwhelmingly (87%) say the country needs to continue to make changes. About three-quarters of conservative and moderate Democrats (73%) also say the country has to continue to make changes, as does a smaller majority of independents (55%).
Majorities of Blacks, Hispanics Say Racism a Big Problem in Society
Racism continues to register as a bigger problem among non-whites, particularly African Americans: 73% of African Americans say racism is a big problem; that compares with 58% of Hispanics and 44% of whites.
Across all groups, the share saying racism is a big problem has risen in recent years.
About four-in-ten Republicans (41%) now say racism is a big problem, while 34% characterize it as somewhat of a problem. In 2010, just 17% of Republicans said racism was a big problem.
Among Democrats, 61% currently say it is a big problem, up 16 points from 2010. Independent views are similar to the public overall (48% say it is a big problem, up from 29% in 2010).
Women are more likely than men to say racism is a big problem (56% vs. 45%), while there are no differences across age groups and only modest educational differences.
Awareness of Confederate Flag Debate Varies
The debate over the Confederate flag has garnered much attention in the public, with nearly nine-in-ten Americans (89%) saying they have heard or read “a lot” (64%) or “a little” (25%) about it; just 10% say they have heard “nothing at all.”
Though whites are somewhat more likely than blacks to say they have heard a lot about this debate (72% vs. 58%), about nine-in-ten whites (93%) and blacks (88%) have heard at least a little about the Confederate flag debates. Awareness among Hispanics is lower: 66% have heard at least a little, while 33% have heard nothing at all.
Those with college degrees are more likely to report having heard a lot about the Confederate flag debates. Nearly eight-in-ten (79%) college graduates have heard a lot, compared with 68% of those with some college education and 51% of those who have not attended college.
About seven-in-ten Republicans (69%) have heard a lot about these debates, a slightly greater share than among Democrats (62%). But liberal Democrats (73%) and conservative Republicans (70%) are about equally likely to have heard a lot about the debates.
Across regions, Southerners are no more likely to have heard a lot about these debates than Midwesterners or Northeasterners; Westerners have heard significantly less about the recent debates.
Demographic, Partisan Differences in Reaction to Confederate Flag
Overall, a majority of Americans (56%) say their reaction to seeing the Confederate flag displayed is neither positive nor negative; the flag elicits a negative reaction from 28%, and a positive reaction from 13%.
Blacks are more likely than either whites or Hispanics to say they experience a negative reaction when they see the flag: 42% of African Americans report experiencing a negative reaction, compared with 27% of whites and 24% of Hispanics. Though few people in any racial group say they view the flag positively, the share of whites who have a positive reaction has increased since 2011, from just 8% then to 16% today.
Partisan reactions to the flag differ as well. Nearly half of Democrats react negatively (47%) to the display of the flag, while about as many (42%) have no particular reaction (just 8% say they have a positive reaction). Among liberal Democrats, however, reaction to the flag is even more negative: Fully 68% have a negative response to seeing the flag displayed, compared with just half as many (34%) conservative and moderate Democrats.
Among Republicans and independents, majorities (63% each) have no particular reaction to seeing the flag displayed.
Among independents, those who do have a reaction are more likely to say that reaction is negative than positive (23% vs. 12%). But among Republicans, the balance of opinion is reversed: 23% say they have a positive reaction, 12% a negative one. The share of Republicans who say they have a positive reaction is up eight points (from 15%) since 2011.
Among college graduates, about as many say their reaction to the flag is negative (44%) as say they have no particular reaction (48%). Those without college degrees are far less likely to say they view the flag negatively.
In all regions of the country the share saying they have a negative reaction is greater than those who have a positive reaction, but those who live in the South are more likely to report having a positive reaction to seeing the flag displayed (18%) than those in other regions (11%).
Among whites living in the South, about a quarter (23%) say they have a positive reaction to seeing the Confederate flag, and about as many (24%) as say they have a negative reaction (52% have no particular reaction). Whites in other regions are less likely to have a positive reaction to seeing the flag (16% of Midwestern whites, along with 10% of whites in the Northeast and West, have a positive reaction).
Broad Support Among Democrats, Blacks for South Carolina’s Decision
South Carolina’s decision to take the Confederate flag down from statehouse grounds is met with approval from a majority of the public: 57% of Americans say it was the right decision, while 34% say it was the wrong decision.
About three-quarters (76%) of blacks, along with narrower majorities of whites (56%) and Hispanics (52%) support the decision.
Though at least half of those in all age groups favor the decision to remove the flag, younger Americans (those 18-29 years old) are somewhat less likely than older Americans to say this.
And college graduates are far more likely than those with less education to support the flag’s removal: 76% of college graduates say this was the right decision, compared with a smaller majority of those with some college experience (58%). Among those who have not attended college, about as many oppose the decision as support it (42% vs. 44%).
Republicans are divided about the decision: 49% say it was the wrong decision, while 43% say it was the right one. Majorities of both independents (53%) and Democrats (74%) say it was the right decision to take the flag down from statehouse grounds. Liberal Democrats, in particular, are supportive of the decision; 86% say it was the right choice.
Majorities in all regions say that taking the flag down was the right decision, although Midwesterners (53%) and Southerners (54%) are somewhat less likely to say this than those living in the Northeast (65%) or West (61%). Among whites, about half of Southerners and Midwesterners say taking the flag down was the right decision (49% each), while clear majorities of Northeastern (68%) and Western (65%) whites say it was the right decision.
Opinions about the decision to take down the Confederate flag are strongly associated with reactions to the flag; nearly all (96%) of those who view it negatively say the decision to take it down was the right one, while 76% of those who view it positively say removing it from statehouse grounds was the wrong decision. But among the majority of Americans who have no particular reaction to the flag, more say its removal was right than wrong (49% vs. 39%).
Confederate Flag’s Symbolism Remains Contentious
When asked to explain in their own words why they feel South Carolina’s decision to take down the Confederate flag was right or wrong, many supporters of the decision cite the flag as containing negative and hurtful symbolism, while many opponents contend that the flag is primarily a symbol of historical pride or that it is misunderstood.
A plurality of the decision’s supporters (36%) say the flag is representative of racism, slavery or hatred, while 20% say that that the flag is offensive and divisive.
Some supporters of the decision to take down the flag view the symbol of the Confederacy as inappropriate to fly on statehouse grounds: 16% say that the symbol of the Confederacy, which lost the Civil War, should not fly, while 8% say the flag does not belong on government property.
About one-in-ten (12%) supporters cite a desire for society to move forward as their reason why they support the flag’s removal. Smaller shares specifically cite the killing of nine African Americans in Charleston in June (5%), or say they support the decision because it is South Carolina’s to make (4%).
Why was it the Right Decision to Take Down the Flag? Voices of Supporters
Why do you say that taking down the Confederate flag was the right decision?
“The Confederacy represents slavery in my eyes.” Black male, 25
“I believe that it’s a symbol of racism and doesn’t belong.” Hispanic male, 39
“Because I think it does more to promote racism than to conserve heritage.” White male, 58
“The flag represents hatred and racism.” Black female, 60
“It’s historic, but it represented the bonding of slaves and opposition of the government.” White female, 18
“I think it just perpetuates an open wound…it is not a symbol that represents all of the people of that state.” Asian female, 45
“It is a painful reminder of a hard time for many people, and I do not think it needs to be celebrated.” White female, 52
“I think it comes to a time when you need to move on. This country has come so far, it shouldn’t be an issue.” Black male, 41
“I think that it represents something very negative and hurtful to a lot of people. And taking it down is small and beginning steps to undoing and rectifying some of that hurt.” Mixed race (White/Native American) female, 32
“The Confederacy lost the war, so why should they be able to fly the flag?” White female, 72
“…the flag itself is a symbol of the past. It belongs in a museum, not in a government establishment.” Asian male, 28
“I believe the Confederate flag is a slap to the American people. We are all Americans under one flag.” White female, 63
“Because it is what the people of South Carolina want.” White female, 38
Among those who oppose the flag’s removal, by far the most common reason people cite is that the flag is an important part of history and a symbol of heritage and pride: 54% describe their feelings in these terms. About a quarter (27%) of those who say the decision to take the flag down was wrong say that the flag is misunderstood or does not represent racism and slavery. A smaller share (17%) mention that the flag itself is harmless and removing it was unnecessary, while 15% view the decision as an overreaction to the Charleston event and 12% express concern that the decision to take down the flag represents government overreach or impinges on freedom of speech and expression.
Why was it the Wrong Decision to Take Down the Flag? Voices of Opponents
Why do you say that taking down the Confederate flag was the wrong decision?
“It is a symbol of heritage, not hate.” White female, 25
“People have the right to honor their ancestors.” White female, 32
“Because it is not a symbol of racism, it is a symbol of the government fighting for freedom.” White male, 56
“Because they are bending to the will of people who don’t understand what the flag stands for.” White male, 32
“Because the flag had nothing to do with the shootings; it represents Southern history.” White female, 48
“Because I felt it was a knee jerk reaction to the tragedy that took place with the church.” White male, 46
“Everybody believes it is an oppression. It is only history. People oppress people.” Asian male, 54
“Nothing is wrong with the flag, the flag didn’t do anything.” White male, 31
“I think it causes more racism by taking it down. I think the government is making it an issue about race.” White male, 31
“The issue is larger than that. Too much attention is being brought to the flag and not to the actual issue.” White male, 61