Americans less optimistic about race relations, study shows

Fewer Americans believe the nation has made significant progress in race relations.

A new study from Nashville-based LifeWay Research conducted prior to the 2020 election finds U.S. adults are less likely now than in 2014 to agree with the statement “We have come so far on racial relations.” Today, 46 percent say America has made worthwhile progress — 28 points fewer than in 2014, when 74 percent said the same.

Americans are also twice as likely to disagree than in 2014. In 2020, 46 percent said they don’t believe the country has come a long way on race relations, compared to 23 percent in 2014.

“With a change in methodology from telephone in 2014 to online, we cannot say definitively if this decreased optimism is an actual change in sentiment or increased forthrightness,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. “Regardless, optimism on race relations is lower than we previously thought.”

White Americans are the most likely to say the U.S. has made significant progress (51 percent), while African-Americans are the most likely to disagree (66 percent).

Religiously unaffiliated Americans are the religious group least likely to agree with the statement (38 percent). Among Christians, those who attend at least monthly (57 percent) are more likely than those who attend less frequently (39 percent) to believe the nation has come a long way on race relations. Americans with evangelical beliefs are more likely to agree (58 percent) than those without such beliefs (43 percent).

RELIGIOUS INFLUENCE

When thinking about how to improve race relations, most Americans (57 percent) say religious leaders play a positive role. Around a quarter (24 percent) disagree, and 18 percent aren’t sure.

Americans are divided over whether U.S. churches are too segregated. More than 2 in 5 (42 percent) believe that to be true, while 36 percent disagree and 22 percent aren’t sure.

Young adults, those age 18-34, are more likely to view churches as too segregated (46 percent) than those 50 and older (38 percent). Half of African-Americans (52 percent) and Hispanics (50 percent) agree, compared to 38 percent of white adults.

Slightly more than a third of Protestants (37 percent) believe churches are too segregated, the lowest among religious groups. The religiously unaffiliated (48 percent), other religions (47 percent) and Catholics (45 percent) are all more likely to say congregations are too racially segregated.

A previous LifeWay Research study found evidence that churches are becoming more diverse, though most are still mostly one ethnic group. In 2017, 81 percent of Protestant pastors said their church was predominantly one racial group, down from 86 percent in 2013.

A LONG WAY TO GO?

Currently, 71 percent of Americans agree with the statement: “We’ve got so far to go on racial relations,” while 21 percent disagree. The portion of those who believe the country has much farther to go is down from 81 percent in 2014. Among African-Americans, however, 81 percent still agree that the U.S. has a long way to go.

Among those identifying as Christian, those who attend church less than once a month are the least likely to see racial diversity as good for the U.S. (63 percent).

“This seems to be an area where pastors are influencing those who are in the pews,” said McConnell. “In the 2017 LifeWay Research study, 93 percent of Protestant pastors said every church should strive to achieve racial diversity. Those who attend more frequently are more likely to see diversity as a benefit to our country.”

— Aaron Earls is a writer for LifeWay Christian Resources.