Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Nathan Klima, The Boston Globe
The New York Times published a story last week about how some Democratic presidential candidates — notably Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris — had said that they are open to the idea of the government paying reparations to black Americans as a restitution for slavery. The two candidates were cautious in their statements on the issue — both to the Times and in a subsequent Washington Post story — primarily emphasizing the history of racial discrimination in the U.S. Neither candidate laid out specific details about how they think a reparations program should work, and I’d be surprised if either of them put out a formal reparations plan — it’s a very unpopular idea. (More on that later.)
But it was notable that neither those two nor several other 2020 candidates contacted by the Times really wanted to firmly oppose reparations either, as past Democratic presidential candidates have. That shift away from outright opposition to reparations is another sign of how the Democratic Party is moving toward more progressive stands on racial issues.
But the reparations news made me curious: On which issues is the racial liberalism of the Democrats in line with the broader public — and where is it not? So I looked at the polling around different policies and rhetoric on racial issues. This is not a comprehensive examination, but an informal look at public opinion research since President Trump’s election.
Before we dive in, I should emphasize two things. First, it’s not new or surprising that ideas that we consider controversial don’t poll well. That’s kind of the point of bold ideas — they wouldn’t be bold if everyone already agreed with them. And, historically, racial liberalism in particular has often been unpopular — Martin Luther King Jr. may be almost universally revered now, but he was not in the 1960s. Secondly, there’s a difference between “unpopular” and “bad policy” and between “popular” and “good policy.” Some ideas that are unpopular may be right or effective — Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2014 essay “The Case for Reparations” is very well-argued. I don’t want to suggest that just because a racial justice idea is unpopular that it shouldn’t be enacted.
I have divided these results into three categories: ideas or rhetoric that is broadly popular (more than 60 percent support from Americans overall), ideas that are unpopular (less than 40 percent support), and those that are somewhere in between.
This category includes vague notions of multiculturalism, ones that I assume most Americans support and that it would be hard to tell a pollster that you oppose. The policy ideas that are fairly popular, such as allowing felons to vote after they have finished their sentences, tend to be those that split Republican elites, with some opposing the ideas and others embracing them.
Here are the some of the popular ideas:
- Racial and religious tolerance: 86 percent of Americans believe a significant part of being “truly American” is accepting people of diverse racial and religious backgrounds, according to a poll released this month by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic.
- Acceptance of nonwhite people: 78 percent say that being of Western European heritage is not important to being American, according to that same PRRI survey.
- Ending mandatory minimum prison sentences: 75 percent of Americans back this idea, according to the PRRI survey.
- The U.S. is a “nation of immigrants”: 73 percent of Americans hold this view, according to a a January 2018 HuffPost/YouGov poll.
- Allowing felons to vote after they have finished their sentences: 63 percent of adults “strongly” or “somewhat” support such a policy, according to a March 2018 HuffPost/YouGov survey.
- Programs to increase racial diversity on college campuses are a good thing: 71 percent of Americans agree with that notion, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center poll.
- Optimism about bridging racial divides: 66 percent of Americans are optimistic that people of different racial and religious backgrounds can work together to solve the country’s problems, according to the February 2019 PRRI report.
- Allowing undocumented immigrants to become citizens: 62 percent of Americans support a path to citizenship if undocumented immigrants meet certain requirements, according to that same PRRI survey.
- The country has not done enough to give equal rights to blacks: 61 percent of Americans hold this view, according to the 2017 Pew poll.
- Muslims have a disadvantage for getting ahead in the U.S.: 60 percent of Americans agree with that statement, according to a 2018 Associated Press-NORC poll.
- White people do have some advantage for getting ahead in the U.S.: 60 percent agree, according to that same AP-NORC poll.
- Separating children from their parents at the border is a human rights violation: 60 percent of Americans agree with that statement, according to a July 2018 Quinnipiac University poll.
This section is generally made up of policies and rhetoric that splits the parties at the elite level — i.e., House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would likely support most of these items, but House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy would oppose them. That elite divide mirrors similar partisan divides in the electorate. Not coincidentally, this section includes more issues and policy questions that have been top-of-mind in U.S. politics over the past several years. (Views of the Black Lives Matter movement are a good example.) Similarly, general expressions of tolerance of all races and religions are popular, but Americans are more divided when you get more specific.
Here are some of these somewhat controversial ideas:
- Being Christian is not essential to being American: About 56 percent of Americans say being Christian is not an important part of being truly American, according to the February 2019 PRRI report. (Thirty-nine percent said being Christian is important.)
- Trump has emboldened people who hold racist beliefs to express those beliefs publicly: 55 percent of Americans agreed with this notion, according to the Quinnipiac survey that was released in July 2018.
- Black and Latino Americans each have some disadvantage for getting ahead in the U.S.: 51 percent of Americans have that view, when asked about each group individually, according to the 2018 AP-NORC poll.
- Agree with the views of the Black Lives Matter movement: 50 percent of Americans said they “mostly” agree, according to a 2017 Marist poll.
- It should be easier to immigrate to the U.S.: 49 percent of Americans agreed with that idea, compared with 32 percent who said that it should be harder, according to the Quinnipiac poll released in July 2018 .
- Trump is a racist: 49 percent of Americans hold this view, according to the Quinnipiac poll.
- The U.S. should not define itself as a country of Western European descendants: In the PRRI survey, respondents were asked to put themselves on a scale where one end is the statement that they “would prefer the U.S. to be a nation made up of people from all over the world” and the other end is the statement that they “would prefer the U.S. to be a nation primarily made up of people from Western European heritage.” Forty-seven percent said they mostly agreed with the first statement.
- Being born in the U.S. is not important to being American: 46 percent of people in the PPRI survey agreed with this idea. A similar share (50 percent) said being born here is important.
- Kneeling as a form of protest during the national anthem: A 2018 Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 42 percent of Americans felt kneeling was appropriate, compared with 53 percent who disagreed.2
- Racial discrimination, as opposed to personal actions, is holding back African-Americans who can’t get ahead: 41 percent agreed with this view, according to the 2017 Pew poll, while a plurality said that such Americans were largely responsible for their own condition.
This section is largely made up of ideas that are to the left of the consensus within the Democratic Party. Taking down Confederate monuments in public places, for example, splits Democratic voters, while Republicans are overwhelmingly opposed. This section is shorter than those above in part because pollsters don’t tend to ask about ideas that are not backed strongly by either party, since those have little chance of becoming reality.
Here some very controversial ideas:
- Confederate monuments in public spaces should be removed: 39 percent support this view, according to a 2017 Quinnipiac poll.
- The number of immigrants in America should increase: 28 percent of Americans hold this view, according to a June 2018 Gallup poll, with 39 percent of Americans wanting immigration levels to stay the same and 29 percent wanting them to decrease.
- Reparations: A July 2018 survey from the left-leaning Data for Progress found that 26 percent of Americans supported some kind of compensation or cash benefits for the descendants of slaves. A May 2016 Marist survey also found that 26 percent of Americans said the U.S. should pay reparations as “a way to make up for the harm caused by slavery and other forms of racial discrimination.”3
- Abolishing the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency: 25 percent of Americans said they supported this idea, according to a July 2018 Politico/Morning Consult poll; 54 percent wanted the agency to remain.
Reparations, along with abolishing ICE, are very unpopular. This was not surprising to me, which is why I was surprised when I first saw the headline, “2020 Democrats Embrace Race-Conscious Policies, Including Reparations” in the Times. But the candidates’ actual comments were more in the vein of our first two categories — somewhat vague acknowledgements of the inequality that black Americans face. The challenge for Democratic elected officials, as the party leans into its racial liberalism, will be how to translate the public’s general pro-minority proclivities into policy. I suspect that Democratic presidential candidates will end up pushing policies that limit how aggressive ICE can be and that address the wealth gap between black and whites — but fall short of explicit calls for abolishing ICE or giving reparations.
But I think there is another potential outcome — Democratic elites moving Democratic voters and then the broader public toward more racially liberal positions. There are many factors behind the growing support for marijuana legalization, but one may be that liberal activists have successfully convinced the public that aggressive policing of marijuana use has resulted in unfair treatment of black Americans.