The emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement almost a decade ago was predicated on the killing of Black people at the hands of law enforcement. In short order, though, that concern spurred a broader consideration of the ways in which racial discrimination or disadvantage is embedded in the systems that undergird American society, including law enforcement.
There were obvious effects. One was that people became much more likely to point to discrimination as the central cause of economic differences between White and Black Americans. Another is that this shift occurred only among Democrats and independents; among Republicans, there was no change. Instead, the rhetoric from Republican leaders rejected the idea that there existed systemic racism in the country. Suggesting that it did was cast as unpatriotic and ahistoric.
Black Lives Matter gained prominence at a moment when White Americans, particularly on the right, were already nervous about their social status. Demographers were projecting that Whites would no longer be a majority within a few decades, and older generations of Americans who are more heavily White saw younger, more heavily non-White generations emerging that espoused different political views generally. Donald Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, near the outset of the BLM movement, and his supporters were more likely than other Americans to say that they believed White Americans were the targets of discrimination.
That pattern has continued. In July, Yahoo News commissioned polling from YouGov looking at the extent to which different racial groups were seen as targets of racism. About three-quarters of Americans said that racism was at least a small problem for Black people. Fewer than half said the same of White Americans.
White Americans, meanwhile, were more likely to say that racism was at least a small problem for them. But among Republicans? A third said that racism against White people was a big problem and 7 in 10 said it was at least a small problem — a higher level than Republicans felt was the case for any of the other racial groups included in the poll.
Last November, YouGov asked similar questions on behalf of the Economist. Then, they found that about a third of respondents believed that White Americans face at least a fair amount of discrimination, compared with two-thirds who said the same of Black Americans. Republicans, though, were more likely to say that Whites faced at least a fair amount of discrimination than they were to say the same of Black Americans.
This probably seems to most observers like a rather obviously dubious position, one rooted in a demonstrative response to the emergence of a national conversation about race rather than actual racism or discrimination that White people have experienced. New research from KFF reinforces that skepticism.
KFF’s pollsters asked a range of Americans of diverse racial backgrounds how often they experienced discrimination or occurrences that they believed were a function of their race. The result?
“At least half of [American Indian and Alaska Native], Black, and Hispanic adults and about four in ten Asian adults say they have experienced at least one type of discrimination in daily life at least a few times in the past year,” the researchers reveal, “and they are more likely to say these experiences were due to their race or ethnicity compared to their White counterparts.”
Across a series of questions, Whites were less likely than other members of racial groups to say that they experienced negative responses from other people, ranging from disparagement to poor service to overt threats.
Black Americans were also almost three times as likely as Whites to say that they or members of their family had been mistreated by police in the previous year. They were also more likely to say that they had experienced being paid less than others doing the same job and less likely to say that they felt safe in their neighborhoods.
Importantly, 4 in 10 Black Americans — as well as 3 in 10 Hispanic and Asian Americans — said that the responses they experienced were at least in part a function of race. Among Whites, only 6 percent believed that race was the reason for the negative responses.
KFF also overlaid a fascinating additional consideration: skin tone. It wasn’t simply the case that Black Americans were more likely than White Americans to say that they had negative experiences that were a function of discrimination. There was also a gap between Black people with light or dark skin tones.
“[A]mong Black adults,” the researchers report, “those with self-reported darker skin tones are more likely to report discrimination experiences than those with lighter skin tones.”
This strongly suggests that what’s being measured isn’t simply an unjustified perception of racism but, instead, actually discriminatory responses being experienced by people of color. In other words, it can’t simply be dismissed as somehow reflecting an oversensitivity to bias. Instead, it’s a reflection of actual bias and discrimination.
Then we can go a step further: It is likely that Republican perceptions of White Americans as facing more discrimination than Black Americans are themselves a reflection of oversensitivity, of viewing the question through a lens of partisan perception rather than actual experience.
As it happens, this conclusion comports with basic logic.