We are in the midst of a national crisis. It is one that requires not just action on the part of every American but a paradigmatic shift—a willingness to endure discomfort and confront personal prejudices. And to judge from polling, most Americans are eager to meet this challenge on the terms set by the country’s most influential and elite opinion-makers. Which crisis am I referring to? Both of them.
A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey found that, in the effort to arrest the spread of Coronavirus, the vast majority of the country is committed to facial masking. Fully 74 percent of all respondents said they “always” wear a mask in public—up 11 points from June. The statistics imply masking is all but universal, but the anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. It is not difficult to find both analytical studies and on-the-ground dispatches indicating that masks are worn selectively and that the presence or absence of masks is a function of the social stigma attached to not wearing one.
What’s at work here is social desirability bias. Most people are not prone to conflict. They know what is expected of them, and they’re eager to please—if only to avoid divergence from acceptable norms of social conduct and, thus, unnecessary confrontation. This is as true when it comes to masking as with the other national crisis, the one to which the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll was primarily devoted: the ongoing national reckoning with American racism.
Given the profound cultural shift this poll measured, this survey’s toplines received precisely the kind of treatment in the press they deserved. That survey found that most Americans—56 percent—believe that American society is racist. It found a growing body of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and for those who protest in that movement’s name. It showed that most Americans believe it is “appropriate” for athletes to “kneel during the national anthem to protest racial inequality,” and it found that a majority endorse the “total” removal of all Confederate monuments from public property—two major adjustments from the status quo that prevailed only a year ago.
This would seem to represent an unqualified series of victories for the forces of woke. And yet, a glance under the hood of this poll leaves honest observers with a nagging sense that what voters want most of all is to defuse the tensions that have become so all-consuming in recent weeks.
First, some discrepancies. While it is, indeed, true that more Americans than ever before recognize the existence of racial discrimination, there is no agreement as to where it is coming from. The Journal notes that there is a stark racial divide over the chief sources of racial tension in the United States, with 65 percent of black respondents claiming it is “built into our society, including our policies and institutions.” In comparison, 48 percent of whites—a plurality—blame “individuals who hold racist views.” That divide is real, but among all registered voters, opinion is split down the middle. Forty-six percent blame institutions, and 44 percent blame individuals. That’s hardly an overwhelming vote of confidence in the Identitarian program, which advocates the comprehensive renovation of nearly every American institution, which are, in their view, the wellsprings of “systemic racism.”
Indeed, if this poll is to be taken at face value, voters actually have more faith in the United States than they’ve had in years. By August of 2017, Americans were particularly down on their country. Only 28 percent described the United States as the “single best place to live in the world,” while a striking 37 percent described it as merely “above average.” Today, the number of Americans who express apathy toward the U.S. has declined by 11 points, while the number who say it remains the “best place to live” has increased by seven points. The statistically significant movement is all in one direction—toward a greater appreciation for this country.
African-American poll respondents delivered yet another repudiation of the woke program. Black Americans were far more likely than other demographics to express distaste with the racial status quo. And yet, there has been a measurable shift in what they believe to be the best course for addressing racial discrimination. As of February 2019, a majority of black survey respondents (54 percent) said that, in the pursuit of racial rapprochement, it was more important to stress the “unique experiences of different racial and ethnic groups” than it was to explore the commonalities shared by all Americans (44 percent). Today, a plurality of African Americans (49) percent believe that highlighting our collective experiences is a better course of action compared to 43 percent who disagree. That now roughly matches the sentiments expressed by a majority of voters on the issue.
This is a refutation of the identity-obsession that has overtaken the left. It is a modest but appreciable rejection of the perverse notion our hereditary traits define us, and that we must take subjective inventory of the “privileges” or disadvantages acquired at birth that set us on a predestined course in life.
Last, and perhaps most importantly, fully two-thirds of voters claim to be quite encouraged by the progress America has made toward “addressing longstanding issues about racism in society.” Of course, a skeptical observer would have to ask, “what progress?” That which has been achieved amid two months of public venting is almost entirely cosmetic. Moreover, 50 percent say they are “concerned that the protests on racial issues are creating social unrest and bringing too much change to the country, including erasing America’s history and significant figures in the country’s story.”
It’s reasonable to assume that these two responses capture a significant number of Americans who are at war with themselves. These are Americans who believe the country’s racial problems are institutional, but they believe progress is being made even in the absence of any substantial institutional reforms. These Americans think the nation is plagued by racial inequities but are fearful of what the protest movements they support are actually doing.
Most voters are neither ideological nor consistent. Contradictions like these are common in polling that seeks to manufacture false binaries out of thorny and multifarious issues. But it’s hard to avoid the sense that, when it comes to race relations, Americans are telling pollsters that which they believe is expected of them—if only because those responses have so captured the attention of the national political reporters to the exclusion of anything contradictory. In the absence of those contradictions, casual readers could be forgiven for thinking the woke American left is winning. The truth is far more complicated.