Politics

Blacks, Whites Differ on Government's Role in Civil Rights

by Frank Newport

All Americans see progress in civil rights in their lifetime

PRINCETON, NJ -- Black and white Americans have starkly different views on the appropriate role of government in dealing with civil rights in this country. A majority of blacks (59%) say that the government should play a major role in improving the social and economic position of blacks, while 19% of whites agree. A little over half of blacks (52%) say that new civil rights laws are needed in this country, while 15% of whites agree.

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Civil rights in this country is a news topic again as the dedication for the new Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C., is approaching on Aug. 28 -- the 48th anniversary of King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech. King in his lifetime was a passionate advocate for government actions to improve the lot of blacks in this country.

A majority of blacks in America today still agree that such government actions are needed, but whites do not share these views -- exemplifying a tension in opinions about the appropriate role of government that has become a dominant motif of today's political debates.

Fewer Americans See Government Role for Civil Rights

More generally, 27% of Americans -- comprising all races and ethnic backgrounds -- believe that the government should play a major role in improving the social and economic position of blacks and other minority groups, down significantly from 40% in 2004 and 37% in 2005. Almost half of Americans agree that the government should play a minor role. Both blacks and whites, on a relative basis, are less likely now than they were six and seven years ago to say that government should play a major role in improving blacks' social and economic position.

Similarly, the percentage of all Americans who say that new civil rights laws are needed to reduce discrimination against blacks has dropped to 21% now from 38% in 1993, with similar changes among whites and blacks.

Americans More Positive About Civil Rights Situation Today

Almost 9 in 10 Americans, regardless of their position on the need for more government intervention in the civil rights arena, say that civil rights for blacks have improved at least somewhat in their lifetime, and the percentage saying that civil rights have "greatly" improved is up 18 percentage points since 1995.

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On this measure, blacks are less positive than whites, mainly when it comes to the distinction between "greatly" and "somewhat" improved civil rights. More than half of whites say civil rights have greatly improved in their lifetime, while blacks tilt more toward the "somewhat" improved position. Blacks' views on this issue have not changed substantively since 1995, while whites have become more positive.

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Perhaps as would be expected, Americans older than 50 are the most likely to say that civil rights have improved greatly in their lifetime. Fifty-nine percent of Americans aged 50 to 64, who would have come into adulthood in the 1960s and 1970s, say that civil rights for blacks have improved greatly, while 53% of those now aged 65 and older agree. On the other hand, 32% of 18- to 29-year-olds agree that civil rights have improved greatly in their still-young lifetime.

Bottom Line

Some 43 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., there is no consensus among Americans that government should play a major role in improving the situation of blacks and minorities in this country or that new civil right laws are needed. At the same time, half of Americans agree that civil rights for blacks in this country have greatly improved in their lifetime.

Blacks and whites maintain starkly differing views on these race relation issues. In particular, blacks are much more likely to believe that the government should play a major role in civil rights and that new civil rights laws are needed. These differences suggest that to some degree the separate but equal societies continue to exist in this country -- at least as far as views of the government's role in addressing civil rights issues are concerned.

Survey Methods

Results for this USA Today/Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Aug. 4-7, 2011, with a random sample of 1,319 adults, aged 18 and older, living in the continental U.S., selected using random-digit-dial sampling. This includes an oversample of 376 non-Hispanic blacks, consisting of 88 interviews done as part of the random national sample and 288 interviews with blacks who had previously participated in national Gallup polls and agreed to be re-interviewed at a later date. The data from the national sample and re-interviews are combined and weighted to be demographically representative of the national adult population in the United States and to reflect the proper proportion of blacks in the overall population

For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 376 non-Hispanic blacks, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±6 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 796 non-Hispanic whites, the maximum margin of sample error is ±5 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample includes a minimum quota of 400 cell phone respondents and 600 landline respondents per 1,000 national adults, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents by region. Landline telephone numbers are chosen at random among listed telephone numbers. Cell phone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.

Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, adults in the household, and phone status (cell phone only/landline only/both, cell phone mostly, and having an unlisted landline number). Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2010 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

View methodology, full question results, and trend data.

For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.

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