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How Are Whites’ Racial Attitudes Changing?

John Grady, Wheaton College (MA)


It is perhaps a sign of the times that a more open-ended question—“are whites’ attitudes about race, and African-Americans in particular, changing?”—appears ether naïve or uninformed. Of course they have changed and dramatically so. Therefore, the more appropriate question would look at how and just how much they have changed.

The following table is based mostly on the responses to questions asked by the General Social Survey (GSS) between the early 1970s and the present. RACPRES is the code for whether you would vote for an African American for president. RACDIF2 asks whether you believe that blacks’ lower socioeconomic standing is due to their possessing “less in-born ability to learn.” RACMAR asks whether there should be laws prohibiting intermarriage between blacks and whites. RACLIVE wants to know if people of another race live in the neighborhood. Finally, RACHOME asks whether the respondent has had an African American home for dinner.

RACPRES, RACMAR, and RACDIF2 are all questions that explore a respondent’s attitudes about race, while RACLIVE and RACHOME ask about an actual situation or behavior. RACPRES and RACMAR concern two very important social issues: whether a person would vote to have the country led by a black person and whether one believed that two people from different races had a right to get married. RACDIF2 is about as close as an attitude survey can get in determining whether a respondent is a racist, believing that blacks are both different than, and inferior to, whites. Not surprisingly responses to these questions all trend in the same positive direction and converge on each other.

By the latter part of the first decade of the twenty-first centry, 94 percent of whites report that they would vote for an African American president; 91 percent do not believe that blacks are hindered by inborn disabilities, and 89 percent support the legal right to intermarriage. Solid majorities espoused these views during the 1970s, with a dramatic shift taking place sometime during the late 1960s and early 1970s. As late as the late 1950s and early 1960s, only slightly over a third of white Americans would vote for a black president (37 percent) or supported the legal right to intermarriage (38 percent).

The two behavioral questions (RACLIVE and RACHOME) also trend in the same upward direction but present a more mixed picture. Today, more whites live in mixed neighborhoods and have had dinner in their homes with African Americans than they did in the 1970s. But the figures tell us that over one third of whites (35 percent) don’t live near blacks and that 59 percent haven’t shares a meal with an African American in their home during the last year.

RACLIVE and RACHOME are measures of social distance, as is RACMAREL and MARBLK that both inquire about a respondent’s willingness to have a close relative marry an African American. As we can see, more whites are opposed to the reality of intermarriage (25 percent) than they are to it in principle (11 percent). The box-office hit and award-winning feature film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” starring Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy, and Katharine Hepburn famously addressed these questions of social distance in 1967. It appears that this aspect of race relations will still be challenging Americans for the foreseeable future.

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After you view the slideshow, answer the following questions:

Briefly discuss why African Americans might be represented differently in magazines aimed at different demographics—young people, sports fans, senior citizens, etc?

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After you view the slideshow and reflect on it, create your own, related slideshow. To focus your approach, read the paragraph below. Your instructor may ask you to e-mail a link to your slideshow, or you can print it out and hand it in.

Changes in how African Americans are represented in advertisements often follow dramatic historical events. Blacks started to be shown in a more positive way after the intense civil rights activity of the early 1960s such as the March on Washington. Similarly, Black pride and independence was featured in advertisements after Martin Luther King Jr.was assassinated in 1968. It follows, then, that increased closeness between blacks and whites might be depicted in advertisements after the election and inauguration of Barack Obama as the first African American president of the United States. Create a slideshow that illustrates these changes and provides commentary about them.  For example, can you find advertising images depicting changes in black and white relationships in contemporary magazines? Look not only at how often African Americans are depicted but also at the quality of the relationships and doings in which they are involved.