Earlier this month, California’s Governor made Assembly Bill 3121, this creating a task force to explore ways for the state to provide reparations for slavery. Last month, the City Council in Chicago created the reparations subcommittee of the city’s Committee on Health and Human Relations. And last year, Evanston, Illinois’s city council voted to use $10 million in taxes from cannabis sales for reparations.
These developments —and the massive multiracial Black Lives Matter protests of the past months—signal a growing public appetite for real conversations about our country’s history of racism and about reparations as a possible path to redress. It’s important to note what the polls say about this appetite – since they hold the potential both to help or hinder progress.
A 2019 Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research Center national survey asked: “Do you think the U.S. federal government should or should not pay reparations for slavery and racial discrimination in this country by making cash payments to the descendants of enslaved people?” The racial gap was huge: 74% of Black people, but only 15% of White people supported reparations.
More recently, not long after the murder of George Floyd, another poll (NPR/IPSOS) showed that 80% of Black people but only 21% of White people agreed that: “Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved deserve compensation, also known as reparations, from the federal government.”
As a sociologist who has studied racial attitudes for decades, I am worried about the narrow and potentially distorted picture being painted by survey results like these. They are great examples of questions that survey methodologists like me try to avoid because they are either too vague or too narrow.
To the extent that public officials and political candidates turn to public opinion polling in considering or justifying their actions, we would be better served by a robust and nuanced record, rather than one that over-simplifies the issue or narrows the debate in ways that potentially exaggerate the racial divide.
Of course, the racial divide on opinions about reparations is not simply driven by how we word survey questions. There are real differences in these, and other racial attitudes, borne out of the very fact that race so fundamentally shapes our life experiences. And public and political debate, conflict, and controversy are inevitable when it comes to questions of race in America.
As the national conversation on reparations unfolds, surveys need to ask questions that can provide an accurate and nuanced portrayal of public opinion. Of course, this begs the question of whether public opinion even matters in terms of the success or failure of policy efforts.
Scores of studies by social scientists have examined this question, and consensus is generally elusive. But in a recent research synthesis, sociologist Paul Burstein concluded that public opinion impacts policy outcomes and particularly so if the measure of the public’s opinion is specific to a particular policy.
For example, a 2009 study that measured public opinion about specific policies predicted state adoption of those policies. The study was in the arena of policies related to gays and lesbians. Predictions of whether a state adopted such policies as domestic partner health benefits, prohibiting discrimination in housing and employment, and marriage equality were predicted by that state’s public opinion as measured using questions about the specific policy options.
Public opinion data also suggest that (White) Americans may be more ready to have this conversation than they have in recent history. Specifically, the case for reparations relies on an understanding of the systems of racism in our country that created and now perpetuate racial inequality.
And the same 2020 survey that showed the very low levels of support for reparations among whites also found that 50% of white Americans agreed that “racism is built into the American economy, government, and educational system.” This comparatively high recognition of systemic racism among whites is consistent with recent Gallup trend data showing a striking increase in the last four years in the extent to which White people perceive that Black people are treated unfairly in a range of settings, including on the job, in restaurants, and by the police.
To date, polls have resulted in characterizations of Black and White Americans as seriously, if not impossibly, divided on the question of reparations. And they focus on a single vision of reparations. As a result, the divide may be over-stated and the shared ground underestimated. Public opinion data should be collected in a way that facilitates our long-overdue conversation on reparations.
If we continue to be overly vague or overly narrow in characterizing public opinion, we run the risk of stifling the conversation and magnifying the divide, rather than trying to find common ground and pathways forward. As Ta-nehisi Coates notes in his powerful essay on the Case for Reparations, the conversation about reparations is long overdue. But the fact that we’re late to it doesn’t mean that we’ll automatically do it well.
Maria Krysan is a Professor of Sociology, an Institute of Government and Public Affairs senior scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project.