New data from a Gallup poll released on Friday suggest the sharp divisions in public opinion over the nation’s direction might be driven by contrasting views on the role of government held by Blacks and whites. Just weeks after a scorched earth debate on Capitol Hill over raising the nation’s debt ceiling, as Tea Party Republicans refused to allow any discussion on raising taxes in defiance of President Obama, the new poll might hold clues as to the battle that is shaping up in advance of the 2012 presidential election. According to the poll, a majority of Blacks (59%) believe the government should play a major role in improving the social and economic position of Blacks, while just 19% of whites agree.
On the week leading up to the dedication of the new Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in the nation’s capital, a tremendous gap exists between Blacks and whites over a vision of equality in America. While the poll indicates 27% of all Americans believe that the government should play a major role in improving social and economic conditions for “minority groups,” that number is down from 40% in 2004 and 37% in 2005. The percentage of Americans who believe that new civil rights laws are needed to combat discrimination also dropped from 38% in 1993 to 21% today. The poll data gives meaning to some of the incendiary rhetoric of the Tea Party and the open hostility exhibited toward President Obama.
What is noteworthy in the Gallup poll data is that 9 in 10 Americans say that civil rights have improved at least somewhat in their lifetime, regardless of their views on the need for government action on civil rights. In addition, the percentage that believes that civil rights have improved greatly has risen by 18 points since 1995. Blacks, however, do not share that sentiment; instead most (56%) hold that civil rights has somewhat improved, a view among African-Americans that has held since 1995. There is also similar views when age is taken into consideration with older Americans (over 50) more inclined to believe that civil rights for Blacks has improved greatly in their lifetime. Younger Americans, age 18 to 29, also believe that civil rights have improved greatly.
The intensity of the current debate over government spending is framed by the polarizing politics in Congress, and the sharp divisions between conservative Republicans and the majority of Americans over the legitimacy of government programs. During the debt ceiling melee on Capitol Hill, polls indicated most Americans were in agreement with President Obama that revenue enhancement, meaning adjustments to prevailing tax rates, should be part of the long-term solution to reduce the deficit. Yet, while Americans see the legitimacy and necessity to adjust taxes, the Gallup results show that whites are not inclined to support spending on government initiatives aimed at improving civil rights for Blacks.