Most, if not all, social problems have racial fault lines, which may explain why many Americans consider racism and prejudice to be the nation's greatest problem. Voters rank these social ills higher than pollution, violence, hunger, or even war, according to a 1999 TNS Intersearch/ABC News.
Race relations is one of America's oldest problems. Slaves were brought to North America a year before the Pilgrims arrived, and history still casts a deep and divisive shadow. Most African Americans say the nation should apologize for slavery and pay reparations; most whites strongly disagree.
Since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the country has been reaching for greater tolerance and equality. Nearly all Americans tell poll-takers that it is essential or important for there to be equal opportunities for people regardless of race, religion, or sex. Most say interracial marriage and adoption are acceptable, and nearly everyone says they would vote for a well-qualified presidential candidate who was African American. At the same time, black families have made some gains, including their current record-low poverty rate and record-high college enrollment.
Public discussion about minority issues traditionally centers on black/white relations, but that focus is widening rapidly as the U.S. population comes to look more like that of the United Nations. With minorities now accounting for 90 percent of population growth, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Hispanics will soon eclipse African Americans as the nation's largest minority group. And by 2050, non-Hispanic whites will account for only 54 percent of the population, down from 74 percent now.
Despite the growing diversity, studies and surveys of whites and non-whites suggest that racial and ethnic discrimination is common. Four in ten blacks, for example, say they have been stopped by police just because they were black. Twice as many African-American and Hispanic applicants are rejected for mortgages than are white applicants with similar incomes, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. And government studies show that minorities are disproportionately poor: At every educational level, they earn less than their white counterparts.
Even though no single racial issue dominates this election year, racial concerns flare up continually. Sometimes symbols or policies are at issue, as with the debate over flying the Confederate flag, Bob Jones University, and police profiling. But most often, race surfaces as an aspect of other issues, ranging from school reform to healthcare access. A solid majority of Americans told Gallup this year that race relations are an "extremely important" or "very important" factor - albeit one among many - in deciding how they will cast ballots in November.
For both voters and candidates, race is an extremely challenging issue. A close look at public opinion reveals that despite many differences, blacks and whites share many values and views. Some examples:
Affirmative action. African Americans strongly support affirmative action programs that give preferential treatment to minorities. Most whites say they oppose affirmative action, and say these programs should be phased out. But when asked generally about programs that help minorities get ahead, most blacks and whites are supportive. There is also widespread agreement about many specific situations. Substantial majorities of both blacks and whites, for example, say that schools should hire the most qualified teachers, regardless of race.
Crime. Campaign debates have centered on fairness in the criminal justice system, particularly the controversy over police using racial profiles to stop or question people. Surveys suggest that a large majority of blacks and a substantial minority of whites are concerned that the criminal justice system is biased against blacks. At the same time, there is also strong, bi-racial support for being tough on crime. In fact, more blacks (83 percent) than whites (67 percent) said that reducing crime should be a top priority, according to a 2000 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
Public schools. Blacks are much more likely than whites to say that public education for black kids is in crisis, but Public Agenda uncovered many areas of agreement in a 1998 study. While black parents put a higher value on integration than white parents, for example, large majorities of both groups also said that the foremost priority should be raising academic standards.