Alexis de Tocqueville began his classic study of “Democracy in America” with an observation that seems especially jarring today. As a European visiting early 19th-century America, he said that nothing struck his “eye more vividly than the equality of conditions.” He was aware, of course that some people were wealthier or more influential than others, but he was describing an underlying sense of perceived societal equality.
As he sought to explain the young nation for his readers, de Tocqueville described that equality as a central feature needed to understand the United States.
The Frenchman, however, was keenly aware that his analysis focused only on white society. He wrote that the “cause of the present troubles and future dangers” for our nation would come from the evil of slavery and its consequences. A generation after de Tocqueville’s analysis, the Civil War legally abolished slavery. But he foresaw that the legal barrier was only part of the problem: “Racial prejudice appears to me stronger in the states that have abolished slavery.”
Sadly, no observer today would describe equality of conditions as a defining feature of our nation. And, as the death of George Floyd proved once again, we are still coming to grips with the horrific legacy of slavery and its consequences.
A national public opinion survey I conducted in recent days shows that the reality of racial inequality is recognized.
Only 21% of voters believe that law enforcement agencies treat white Americans and black Americans equally. Sixty-two percent (62%) recognize that white Americans receive better treatment while 15% are not sure. Two percent (2%) bizarrely believe that black Americans are treated better.
Not surprisingly, black voters are even more pessimistic in their assessment. Eighty-three percent (83%) believe whites receive better treatment from law enforcement while only 11% see equality.
The following numbers are the natural result of that perceived inequality:
- If they were approached by a police officer while walking down the street alone, 72% of black Americans would be nervous. That includes 39% who would be very nervous.
- Among white Americans, only 11% would be very nervous and another 28% somewhat nervous.
It’s important to recognize that these numbers are not just about lower-income or poorly educated black Americans. If alone and approached by a police officer, 1 out of every 4 college educated black voters would be very nervous! Among college educated white voters, only 1 in 10 would be so stressed.
The numbers reminded me of a long-ago conversation with Harvey Gantt, the first African American admitted to Clemson University and the first black mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina. Gantt told us he always dressed well when going to the hardware store. Why? So they wouldn’t think he was shoplifting!
Gantt’s concern — and the concern felt by many when police approach — is understandable when 27% of black Americans say they have been falsely accused of a crime.
The numbers are depressingly similar for the inequality issued by judges and courts.
But it’s important to recognize that this is not just a problem with our legal system. It is a problem with our society. Only 31% believe most Americans treat whites and blacks equally in day-to-day life. Only 19% of black Americans believe that to be the case.
Against the backdrop of these depressing numbers and realities, there is a bit of encouraging news in the survey. By an 82% to 4% margin, voters believe that the officers involved should be arrested (most of the survey was conducted prior to the arrest of Derek Chauvin, the rest shortly thereafter). Among those following the story very closely, 96% favored the arrest and only 1% were opposed.
When faced with the reality of racial discrimination — with video of a white police officer choking the life out of a black man — Americans are repulsed.
But for tens of millions of white Americans it will be just another moment in an endless series of ever shorter news cycles. When reminded of it, they will be sickened. But it won’t bring about change.
These are the difficulties de Tocqueville anticipated long ago. They are the same challenges faced by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. They are the reason we live in a nation where only 18% rate race relations as good or excellent.
It’s good that just about everybody believes a white police officer should be arrested for the senseless killing of a black man. But what will we do — how will we change — to create a future where just about everybody believes race relations are good?
Scott Rasmussen is an American political analyst and digital media entrepreneur. He is the author of “The Sun is Still Rising: Politics Has Failed But America Will Not.”