The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How racist was our country? Take a look at the numbers.

Former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley speaks at the Moms for Liberty Summit in Philadelphia. (Hannah Beier/For the Washington Post)
4 min

A Republican presidential primary campaign that has often focused on issues of race — Donald Trump’s “poisoning the blood” rhetoric, Ron DeSantis’s slavery curriculum in Florida and Nikki Haley’s initial failure to cite slavery as the cause of the Civil War — has now turned to this question: The lingering effects of systemic racism aside, has the country ever been racist?

As The Washington Post’s Mariana Alfaro and Maegan Vazquez report, Haley is doubling down on her claim that it has not. Haley has said for years that this isn’t a racist country, but she has extended that claim to cover 250 years of U.S. history.

“America has always had racism, but America has never been a racist country,” Haley’s campaign said in a statement Wednesday night.

Many people, including The Post’s Philip Bump, have unpacked the ways in which racism is ingrained in America’s past — and often in its official policies.

What Haley’s updated statement seems to suggest is an attempt to separate racism that has clearly existed in the United States from the country’s underlying character.

But as we digest that, it’s important to understand just how pervasive racist beliefs have been in the relatively recent past. A country, after all, is made up of its people, however much President Biden likes to say that “America is an idea.”

For that, we have polling dating back to the 1930s that provides insights, courtesy of the Roper Center’s great archive. Those polled at the time were disproportionately educated, White and male, but that also means the polling reflects how the most powerful demographic groups in the country felt. And depending on the question posed, a plurality or even a majority expressed racist views.

What may be the oldest, extensive, detailed data we have on this topic comes from the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) in the 1940s. It found:

  • 47 percent of Americans said restaurants shouldn’t serve both White and Black customers (surveys back then generally used the word “negro” instead of “Black”).
  • 46 percent wouldn’t like being treated by a Black nurse.
  • 51 percent said White people should get the first shot at a job over a Black person.

Some other key findings around this period:

  • 63 percent said White and Black troops should be separated (Gallup, 1948).
  • A majority supported school segregation in the South (Life magazine, 1950).
  • 71 percent said Black people were less intelligent, and nearly half both agreed with that and said it was because they were born that way (Fortune magazine, 1939).
  • While 94 percent disapproved of how the Nazis treated Jewish people, nearly two-thirds said the persecution of Jews in Europe was entirely (11 percent) or partly (54 percent) the Jewish people’s own fault (Gallup, 1938).
  • Just 39 percent said Jewish people should be treated the same as all Americans; the rest preferred statements cautioning against Jews intermingling with others (11 percent), wanting to prevent Jews from gaining too much power in the business world (32 percent), or wanting to deport them to a “new homeland” (10 percent) (Fortune, 1939).
  • Americans were about evenly split on whether Jewish people “have too much power and influence in this country” (Office of Public Opinion Research, 1942).

Polling on these subjects really picked up in the 1960s, amid the rise of the civil rights movement. A 1965 Harris Poll found that, while few Americans would object to working with or sitting next to a Black person:

  • 37 percent would object to having a Black family live next door.
  • 85 percent would object to a friend or relative marrying a Black person.
  • 92 percent would object to their teenage daughter dating a Black person.
  • 41 percent agreed that Black people had less “native intelligence.”
  • 58 percent agreed that Black people had less ambition.

Around the same time, a 1968 NORC poll asked similar questions, breaking out how non-Black respondents felt. It found:

  • Most blamed Black people’s failure to achieve equality more on their lack of initiative (54 percent) than on restrictions imposed by White society (38 percent).
  • Most agreed that Whites had a right to keep Black people out of their neighborhoods, and that Black people “should respect that right.”
  • About three-fourths agreed that Black people “shouldn’t push themselves where they’re not wanted.”

This is an incomplete picture, in large part because we don’t have good data on where Americans stood for about two-thirds of our nation’s history. Given the trends and how the country treated Black people, in particular, racism almost surely was significantly more pervasive in the 1800s.

But we’re also talking about findings that aren’t too far in our nation’s past; about half of the numbers you see above reflect the country as it existed when both of our likely 2024 major-party presidential nominees were alive.