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Changes to Racial Attitudes Over Time

Changes to Racial Attitudes Over Time



With this paper, I wish to address racial attitudes over time. I will identify and discuss some cultural factors that contribute to racial attitudes. I hope to illustrate a lack of changing attitudes with charts derived from statistics of The General Social Survey showing different variables that measure racial attitudes over time. Finally, I will discuss the main points of conflict theory in relation to past and current racial attitudes.

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Allow me to begin making my case by grappling with the term “racial attitudes”. First, we must begin to deal with the fact that; although humans come in many different varieties, race is little more than a social concept/construct. It is relative to one’s own culture and shapes how we perceive anything other. This is pointed out in intro-level sociology text books. “Sociologists point out that our ‘race’ depends more on the society in which we live than on our biology” (Henslin, 2017). However, within human culture, the idea of race is firmly embedded, therefore whether race is real or imagined, its consequences are very real. The same intro-level sociology text book warns us regarding race; “sociologists W. I. and D. S. Thomas (1928) observed, ‘If people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.’ In other words, people act on perceptions and beliefs, not facts” (Henslin, 2017). This brings me to the attitudes portion of the phrase racial attitudes. It must be noted that attitudes and actions are two very different things. “Sociologist Robert Merton’s typology points out that attitudes should not be confused with behavior” (Schaefer, 2016). I hope to later point out why I believe this distinction is paramount in evaluating and measuring changes in racial attitudes over time. It is also important here to address the relativity of the word time. Are we talking about racial attitudes over the last 500 years, or are we dealing with a more contemporary timeframe? For the sake of argument, let us confine this discussion to roughly one human lifetime, say seventy-five years; 1943-2018.

Believing I have adequately prefaced my statement, let me now state; RACIAL ATTITUDES HAVE CHANGED LITTLE. I argue that although outward behaviors have changed to and fro, attitudes have not. Political correctness wins the day in people’s self-modification of behavior, but racial attitudes, or more to the point; thinking, has changed little. The anonymity of the internet, as well as its reach and speed, has allowed society to show true attitudes, spreading hatred faster and farther than ever. The greatest predictor of a person’s racial attitudes are the attitudes of that person’s parents and family.  Since these are the strongest cultural factors that socialize anyone into their environment from a young age, it stands to reason that significant change may only be expected after generations. I’ll agree that since WWII it may seem that achievements such as desegregation of schools, less overt stigma toward couples of mixed races, and legislation to ensure equal rights, and access to housing, even the election of our first non-white president should indicate changing attitudes. However, I think the only thing that truly changed is; what amount of obvious racial bias is acceptable to overtly and outwardly display; all the while maintaining racial attitudes and thinking of generations past. When it comes to race, Americans express different attitudes in public than they personally hold (Craemer, 2007). Regardless, even if individual racial attitudes have changed; systemic institutional discrimination is still in effect. Some studies have attempted to gage more than reactions to survey questions and to also measure nonverbal responses to visual cues, in hope of accounting for answers given according to perceived social norms (Craemer, 2007).

Some studies indicate substantial changes in white racial attitudes has moved from very substantial opposition to the principle of racial equality to one of almost universal support (Krysan & Moberg, 2016). According to answering surveys, that is. In fact, the General Social Survey shows that in America, almost every single demographic surveyed now answer at an all-time high that; the nation spends too little on assistance for blacks. All demographics but one, blacks themselves, who respond at a nearly all-time low. The following four charts indicate survey respondents’ answers over time broke out by TOTAL, POLITICAL AFFILIATION, SEX and RACE (GSS, 2018).  Does this indicate at long last a belief by most that our government should spend more tax dollars than ever to assist blacks, or that a culture of political correctness has shaped the way surveys are answered? Does this indicate that blacks now perceive less need for the federal government to spend tax dollars on their assistance? If survey answers change, is that proof that racial attitudes have changed as well?

Many share this glass-half-full optimism, I do not. In 2009, after the election of Obama, esteemed Yale University psychology professor John Dovidio, PhD said in an interview “President Barack Obama’s election is the result of a general, steady decline of racial prejudice over time” (Dovidio, 2009) and “Obama’s election offers America unique and profound new racial experiences” (Dovidio, 2009) and “his election can be a critical stimulus for creating a greater balance of power in the United States socially, economically and politically” (Dovidio, 2009). I think in retrospect, this is a bit hopeful, if not celebratory. It would seem today that rather than racial attitudes changing, they had become lax, and masked by political correctness. I do not see this greater balance of power today. I see the pendulum swinging hard in the opposite direction, to an imbalance previously unknown in my lifetime. I do not think that Dr. Dovidio could foresee the profound racial experience that would come to power on the heels of Obama. Crowds of angry white Americans chanting ‘make America great again’, wishing to once again be openly racist, and throw off the chains of political correctness is what I’ve seen.

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It was difficult in 2009 to foresee the backlash of racial attitudes that would soon reveal themselves over the World Wide Web, and later, ultimately be restored to full-on overt hate that emboldens white supremacists to again march in the streets and parks of the south. However, this problem is not isolated to the United States. Much of Europe, and to some extent South America, has witnessed a dynamic swing of power to Right-Wing political entities once considered extreme. This swing can be attributed to increasing scare tactics directed toward emigrants, much of which through the internet and social media. Xenophobia, and Nationalism both contributed significantly to the United Kingdom voting to withdraw from the European Union (henceforth EU). Refugees and more to the point migrants have been in the spotlight; with alarming media discourse containing expressions like ‘huge migration crisis’, ‘waves of migrants flooding the EU’ with a focus on violence as the main outcome (Assimakopoulos, Baider, & Millar, 2017). In response, the EU is seeing a resurgence of nationalism, with violent reactions related to feelings of insecurity, fear or anger, and several xenophobic political parties, are feeding these feelings of anxiety and resentment to gain voters (Assimakopoulos, Baider, & Millar, 2017). Europe, post-WWII, having seen first hand what racial hyperbole can lead to, witnessed a sharp decrease in freedoms of speech. Some hate speech is criminally punishable. Yet still, hate speech, and indeed hate crimes are on the rise in the EU amid these restrictions. The perceived anonymity of the internet fosters a truthful display of what societies’ covert racial attitudes honestly are. It’s no wonder why the ugliest of these racial attitudes are expressed throughout the internet, where speech is less regulated, and real-world consequences are scarce.

I think slowly, and more evidently, we may witness climate change before true attitude change. Technology has witnessed leaps forward, but no such forward leap for racial attitudes. Technology has not only provided wonders as remarkable as human heart transplants and the artificial heart but allowed us to map the entire human genome.  However, it is this same technology, in the form of the internet, that I think is also best at proving my statement. A man of one race, having the heart of a different race woman, pumping the lifeblood through his arteries should speak louder than any comment section on the internet, but it does not seem to. Being able to prove through undisputable genetic testing and empirical science that we all share >99% of the same genetic make-up, should speak louder than sound-bites on social media, but it does not seem to.

I believe that conflict theory may suit sociologist best at looking at racial attitudes. I think the fears discussed previously toward outgroup cultures and races can be viewed as fears of no longer controlling power. Not strictly the power to control resources or the means of production, as conflict theory originally purposed, but political power, social capital, and privilege, or any other things the powerful few may want to withhold from the different many. Does simply granting equal protection under the law require you to decrease the protections long enjoyed by the privileged few? And if not, still, whom will we trust to enforce these new protections? Racism, for centuries around the world, has been systemic at an industrial scale. Laws are already in place to afford equality, yet enforced unequally. I believe that both the non-violent and the by any means necessary factions of the Civil Rights Movement would agree this is an epic conflict, a struggle for survival at times. If, with or without conflict theory, this struggle made any gains in the past, even if only superficial and not changing hearts and minds; then now more than ever those struggles should be renewed and sustained until another generation may be raised to put more belief in our sameness than our perceived racial differentness. The teachings of Karl Marx, and conflict theory once before brought about tremendous social change and upheaval that lasted generations, indeed still lingers today. What better, more hopeful theory of sociology offers what conflict theory does to racial attitudes?


  • Assimakopoulos, S., Baider, F. H., & Millar, S. (2017). Online Hate Speech in the European Union – A Discourse-Analytic Perspective. Springer International Publishing AG. Retrieved October 2018, from
  • Craemer, T. (2007). An Evolutionary Model of Racial Attitude Formation: Socially Shared and Idiosyncratic Racial Attitudes. Annals of The American Academy of Political and Social Science, 614(1), 74-101. Retrieved 10 29, 2018, from
  • Dovidio, J. (2009). Race relations in a new age. 28. (K. I. Mills, Interviewer) American Psychological Association. Retrieved October 2018, from
  • GSS. (2018, October). The General Social Survey. Retrieved from NORC at the University of Chicago.:
  • Henslin, J. M. (2017). Sociology: a down to earth approach – Thirteenth Edition. Pearson Education. Retrieved 5 1, 2018
  • Krysan, M., & Moberg, S. (2016, August 25). Trends in Racial Attitudes. (University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs) Retrieved October 2018, from Trends in Racial Attitudes:
  • Schaefer, R. T. (2016). Race and ethnicity in the United States (Eighth Edition ed.). Pearson Education. Retrieved 9 12, 2018


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