The conversations about race that are — and aren’t — happening in American homes
The greatest disparities in attitudes and conversations about discrimination were not between white Americans and Black Americans but between white Democrats and white Republicans
Layla Kaiksow and her two children, ages 9 and 12, sometimes encounter racist graffiti along the walking trails near their home outside of Houston. On one occasion, Kaiksow and her children, who are Muslim, faced a “larger than life” swastika on a concrete-lined embankment alongside their path.
She returned to the site with the principal of a neighborhood school. Together, along with Kaiksow’s two children, they painted over the offensive graffiti.
It’s just one of the many ways Kaiksow tackles the sensitive issues of racial and ethnic discrimination — topics that are a constant conversation in the family home.
According to findings of the latest American Family Survey, released Tuesday in Washington, D.C., by the Deseret News and Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, Kaiksow isn’t alone in her attempts to discuss racism and discrimination with her children. Kaiksow does, however, represent a certain racial and political demographic — white Democrats — and an unexpected finding.
“The group where we see the biggest divide is white Americans and the biggest divide is across parties,” said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy and a political science professor at Brigham Young University. That is, the greatest disparities in attitudes and conversations about discrimination were not between white Americans and Black Americans but between white Democrats and white Republicans.
The American Family Survey, now in its seventh year, is an annual nationally representative study that looks at how families live, love and prosper or struggle amid current events. This year, YouGov fielded the survey of 3,000 adults June 25 to July 8, just before COVID’s delta variant became widespread and prior to the start of the school year. The margin of error is plus or minus 2 percentage points.
Across the board, Americans have different perceptions about the obstacles faced by families of color. Just over half of white Americans agreed with the statement “Black families face obstacles that white families do not” and nearly half say that Hispanic and Asian families also contend with unique challenges. But Black and Hispanic Americans were even more likely to agree with the same statements than their white counterparts
And when the data is broken down along party lines, sharp differences between white Americans appear.
When asked whether Black families face obstacles that white families don’t, 88% of white Democrats agreed with the statement as compared with only 24% of white Republicans. The discussions about race white Americans have in their homes are also radically different, depending on party affiliation.
In the wake of widely reported deaths of Black Americans George Floyd and Breonna Taylor last year at the hands of police, the American Family Survey researchers used questions about policing as one way to get at the larger conversation about race.
“Our focus this year was really on conversations about policing and the extent to which police discriminate on the basis of race versus the role of the police in keeping communities safe,” said Karpowitz. Additionally, researchers were “interested in the extent that people talk about how to stay personally safe when interacting with the police.”
A ‘Christian lens’
A registered Democrat, Kaiksow, 39, is Muslim and Arab on her father’s side and white and Christian on her mother’s. According to the American Family Survey, white Democrats like her are the most likely to talk with members of their household about police discrimination based on race.
The survey found these conversations are happening more in the homes of white Democrats than nonwhite Democrats. And, while 69% of white Democrats report discussing racial discrimination and policing with their families, only 21% of white Republicans report doing so.
“White Democrats are especially concerned about this issue and eager to lean into it in a way that we certainly don’t find among white Republicans,” said Karpowitz.
Ellie Rodriguez, a 34-year-old nurse practitioner and mother of three who lives in Jupiter, Florida, is a registered Republican. While she and her husband discussed George Floyd’s death among themselves, they have not discussed it or racial discrimination against minorities with their boys, ages 7, 5 and 2, she said.
Rodriguez, who is white but whose husband and children all identify as Hispanic, explained that the conversations they do have about race are part of a larger, ongoing discussion about God. The family attends a nondenominational evangelical church.
“We look at everything through (a Christian) lens,” she said. “I think it’s important to let the boys know that God made all different kinds of races. God made everyone different but we’re all different reflections of God.”
Rodriguez and her husband also apply a Christian lens to the conversations they have with their boys about police.
As soon as they “boys could understand right from wrong, we’ve brought them up in a way that you need to respect authority,” Rodriguez said. “We’re looking at everything from a biblical perspective. ... God’s the ultimate authority. There’s order in the way he’s designed everything.”
And that order extends to our society and police. “We have laws and we have rules we need to follow,” she said. “If a policeman comes up and asks you a question, you answer. You don’t run, you don’t hide, you behave.”
Rodriguez added that she and her husband have long taken their children to community events that include police and firefighters. They tell the boys, “These people are here, generally, to help and protect us.”
Talking vs. interacting
Many white Democrats are having similar discussions with their families — white Democrats and white Republicans differ by only 2 percentage points when it comes to conversations about police keeping communities safe. They’re just having these talks alongside conversations about discrimination.
“We talk about how police do keep some communities safe and threaten others,” said Kaiksow. “It is not a given that police keep us safe, and my kids know that.”
Kaiksow and her children also discuss how to stay safe when interacting with police which, statistically speaking, is a conversation more likely to be held by nonwhite families. “I always tell my children to respect police and follow their orders. I also tell my kids to speak up if they see police doing something wrong. I don’t frame police as the enemy but as humans who can do good and bad like anyone else,” Kaiksow said.
Something else also stood out in the data to Karpowitz. “The other thing that just really jumps off the page for me is how few people are having substantial positive interactions across lines of race, say something like arranging a playdate with a family of another race — it’s just very rare,” said Karpowitz. “And most Americans, especially at lower and middle income levels, are not having any of these sorts of interactions. We didn’t ask about last month or last year, we asked about the last five years: Have you done this even once in the last five years?”
Karpowitz said that building these kinds of relationships across racial boundaries is tremendously important as the data showed that when it comes to social interactions, America remains segregated.
“Yes, there is a divide in attitudes about race, but what we’re also seeing is that social separation is still very much a fact of American life,” Karpowitz continued, explaining, “A lot of what’s playing into this is patterns of residential segregation. You might not have as many in your child’s broader circle of school friends. … We’re still dealing with the legacy of (formal segregation) in pretty significant ways.”
All of this adds up to Americans of different races and political affiliations essentially living in different realities, something that is worrisome to many political scientists, Karpowitz said. “Both across racial and ethnic lines and across partisan lines, in many ways, Americans really see the issue of race in radically different ways — they’re living in different worlds.”
But Kelly Smith, a registered nurse and a mother of three boys ages 12, 7 and 4, and a stepmother of two children in Richmond, Virginia, is trying to reach across the divide.
“I do intentionally try to surround the kids with not just whiteness. I take them to parks in different parts of the city,” she said. “We specifically chose to move into a neighborhood that isn’t just a white neighborhood — our neighborhood elementary school has people from all around the world.”
Smith, who is white, added that, as she has attempted to educate her children about issues surrounding race and ethnicity, she has also learned a lot.
“I was raised in kind of a bubble not really being aware of my whiteness,” Smith reflected. “My parents are not racist, but I don’t think they really had the awareness of things to talk about and reflect on. So part of my journey of talking to my kids about race is educating myself. ... I am learning as I go and taking the kids along for the ride.”