public opinion on Critical Race Theory

The Economist/YouGov has released a survey of 1,500 U.S. Adult Citizens (fielded from
June 13 – 15, 2021) that asks some questions about Critical Race Theory (CRT). This is their summary.

This issue is deeply partisan and breaks in Republicans’ favor. Eighty-five percent of Republicans are very unfavorable to CRT, whereas 58% of Democrats are very favorable. But the public as a whole breaks against CRT, 58%-38%, due to Independents’ opposition (71% are very unfavorable) and Democrats’ somewhat mixed support.

Party ID appears more significant than demographics. For instance, a slight majority of Blacks (52%) are very favorable to CRT, but 16% are very unfavorable: a less positive balance than we see among Democrats. Women, college graduates, and young people are a bit more favorable than others, but those differences are small. (With access only to the printed report, I can’t run a regression to see how these variables may interact.)

Fifty-four percent of Americans say they have a very good idea what CRT is. The remainder are split between not being sure whether they know and being sure that they do not know what it is: 23% each. Thirty-five percent have heard nothing at all about CRT, 38% a little, and 26% a lot.

I think most of the people who say they know what CRT is are giving themselves too much credit. It names a rather specific academic movement that few of us understand. I would not claim that I have reliable knowledge of CRT (when knowledge = justified true belief) even though I study this general topic. But 54% of Americans are confident that they know what it is.

Although almost half of people are not sure what CRT is, 96% of respondents state a favorable or unfavorable view of it, and a total of 78% hold either a very favorable or a very unfavorable view. In other words, many people have opinions–even strong ones–about CRT even though they do not believe they know what it is and have heard nothing at all about it.

A mainstream position in political science these days is that Americans lack well-justified and autonomous opinions about most political issues. Achen and Bartels argue that even politically conscious citizens usually display “just a rather mechanical reflection of what their favorite group and party leaders have instructed them to think” (Achen and Bartels 2017, p. 12).

I dissent from this general view and have spent the past week on a methodological paper that aims to show that individuals hold more complex and individualized structures of opinions than one can glean from standard survey research. Yet the nature of public opinion depends on the issue, and especially on whether political professionals are exploiting it.

CRT is a great example of an issue on which public opinion reflects partisan heuristics and cues from leaders rather than careful thought. It’s bound to stay near the top of the national agenda, not only because it serves as a proxy for deeper issues related to race, but also because of the partisan politics. Republicans aren’t going to drop an issue that polls so well for them, but Democratic leaders–even if they wanted to–can’t strongly oppose CRT while 58% of their voters strongly favor it.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.