As issues of race continue to make national headlines, most California voters say that race relations are better here than they are in the rest of the country, according to results from the latest USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll.
Almost three quarters of Californians said they felt relations between people of different races were “good” or “excellent” in their own neighborhoods and 63 percent believe that race relations in the city in which they lived met the same positive standard. By contrast, only 27 percent of respondents felt that race relations were “good&rduo; or “excellent&rduo; in the United States as a whole. (The survey was taken between March 28 and April 7, so only a small percentage of the those polled could have been aware of the April 4 death of an unarmed black man who was shot by a South Carolina police officer.)
“California is the most demographically diverse community in the history of the planet Earth,” said Dan Schnur, director of the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll and executive director of the Unruh Institute of Politics of USC. “So it makes sense that as we get to know people of other racial and ethnic backgrounds, Californians develop personal relationships that can transcend those differences. But when we hear about a racially charged incident on the news from another part of the country, it’s easy to come to a much different conclusion without that first-hand perspective.”
Sixty-five percent of Californians said California is better than in other parts of the country when it comes to race relations, compared to 24 percent who said race relations were about the same and 6 percent who said it was worse.
The positive responses were similar among voters of the same race and ethnicity. Sixty-five percent of white voters, 61 percent of Latino voters, 60 percent of African American voters and 79 percent of Asian American voters all said that race relations were better in California than in other parts of the country. About a quarter of each racial group said relations were about the same in California as elsewhere in the country: 25 percent of whites, 26 percent of Latinos, 30 percent of blacks and 14 percent of Asian Americans agreed with that sentiment. Single-digit percentages of respondents said race relations were worse in California; the highest, at 8 percent, was from Latino voters.
“Better” race relations in California doesn’t necessarily indicate that race relations are “good.” Most Californians – 53 percent – said race relations in California were “just fair” or “poor.” Seventy-two percent said the same about the country.
A mixed bag
Overall, voters were more optimistic about race relations in their immediate lives and less optimistic about race relations externally. Seventy-four percent of California voters said they are rarely or not at all personally discriminated against.
“People do externalize the problem. They don’t see it in their own lives, but they sort of have this sense that it’s happening somewhere out there. The context is distance,” said Drew Lieberman, vice president of Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, part of the bipartisan team with Republican polling firm American Viewpoint, which conducted the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll. “You can say, ‘The further I get away from my own personal experience the worse things probably are. I see it in the media, I hear it. But California is closer to my own personal place. And things might not be great here, but they’re certainly better than what’s going on in other places around the country.’”
Added Matt Rodriguez, a distinguished Unruh Institute fellow and Democratic strategist: “California voters see race relations here in the state, and especially in their own neighborhoods, in a much more positive light than they see the rest of the country.”
Respondents were split on whether they believed race relations were improving. Thirty-eight percent of voters said race relations were getting better in California, 37 percent said they were staying about the same, and 22 percent said things were getting worse.
When considering race relations in the United States over the past 10 years, 37 percent of California voters said relations were improving in the country, 32 percent said it was about the same and 29 percent said race relations have gotten worse. Among Asian voters, 48 percent said relations have improved in the country, compared to 30 percent who said things have remain unchanged and 20 percent who’ve said relations have gotten worse. Forty-two percent of Latinos said things have improved, which is 19 percentage points higher than the 23 percent of Latinos who said things have gotten worse.
Black voters were split; 36 percent said race relations have improved in the United States, while another 35 percent said that race relations have gotten worse.
“There is significant generational optimism about how California and the country have progressed on racial issues. For younger voters under 30 or under 45, the current tension over race relations seem like a significant improvement over what they read about in history books,” said David Kanevsky, vice president of Republican polling firm American Viewpoint.
Dimmer views on discrimination against African Americans
There was consensus about discrimination against African Americans, who reported dimmer outlooks on race relations in the United States than other voters. Seventy-seven percent of black voters said race relations in the country are “just fair” or “poor”.
Black voters differed on whether they personally felt discriminated against because of their race. Forty-nine percent said they often or sometimes experience racial discrimination, while 51 percent said this rarely or never happened. Eighty percent of white voters said they are rarely or not at all discriminated against, as did 71 percent of Latino voters and 69 percent of Asian voters.
Respondents agreed that blacks face more discrimination in California than any other group — Latinos; gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people; women; Asians or whites. Eighty-eight percent of California voters said they think African Americans are discriminated against; 95 percent of black voters said the same.
While 36 percent of all voters polled said they think the police treat all groups the same way, 43 percent of all voters said they think the police are tougher on blacks. This is a 10 percentage-point increase from when pollsters asked this question last September, even though that poll came after the officer-involved deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, while this poll preceded the shooting in South Carolina.
Among black voters, 77 percent said the police were tougher on African Americans, while 16 percent said they think the police treat everyone the same.
“When you look around and you see Ferguson, Mo., and New York City and North Charleston, S.C., you can think that things are a lot better in California than they are elsewhere,” Lieberman said. “You can think things are better here without thinking that things are good.”
Diversity and immigration increasingly seen as positives in California
Another potential source of the sense that race relations are better in California than elsewhere in the country is the amount of diversity and racial interaction in the state. Most California voters – 53 percent – said that racial diversity in their neighborhood has a positive impact, compared to 11 percent of Californians who characterized the impact as negative.
Appreciation of undocumented immigrants
There is also a growing appreciation of undocumented immigrants in California. This year, 57 percent of California voters said undocumented immigrants have a positive impact on the state economy, compared to 34 percent who said the impact was negative. Two years ago, the split was 53-36; five years ago, it was 40-48, with more respondents saying the impact was negative.
“A rapidly diversifying society has changed California’s views on race relations,” said Michael Madrid, a distinguished Unruh Institute fellow and Republican strategist. “As with many social issues, the more people come into regular contact with those different than themselves begin to feel that diversity is a positive development for our state.”
California voters reported frequently or sometimes interacting with people of a different race when they were in public spaces – running errands (84 percent); attending a public event such as a movie, play, sporting event or concert (77 percent); at their children or grandchildren’s school (77 percent); in their neighborhoods (76 percent); at social gatherings like parties and picnics (75 percent); and at work (66 percent). They were least likely to interact with other races at church or their place of worship – just 47 percent of voters reported frequently or sometimes interacting with other races there.
“When you know your neighbor and you have more diverse communities, which California does, it becomes much harder to discriminate against other people. In most parts of voters’ own daily lives the voters feel as though they’re interacting with people of other different races — whether they be at work, school, social gatherings, or in their neighborhoods. And that’s a lot of the reason why they don’t feel there’s as much racial tension in their own communities because in their communities they are interacting with people of other races. But they recognize that racial tensions exist across California and the country and that it’s a problem for communities of color, specifically for African Americans,” Kanevsky said.
The latest USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll, the largest statewide survey of registered voters, includes a significant oversample of Latino voters as well as one of the most robust cell phone samples in the state. The full sample of 1,504 registered voters has a margin of error of +/- 2.7 percentage points.