New Survey Shows Southerners Remain Divided Despite Some Past Movement on Systemic Racism 

White Southerners Appear More Motivated to Vote With Weeks to Go, Black Southerners Show Hesitance on COVID-19 Vaccine

October 21, 2020

Ryan Berni

(NEW ORLEANS, LA) – A new survey from Mitch Landrieu’s E Pluribus Unum (EPU) organization finds major divides by race on a range of issues and perspectives, including attitudes on COVID-19 vaccine usage, how to address the pandemic, causes of poverty, equality of opportunity, access to healthcare, whether systemic racism exists and race relations.

With the backdrop of the upcoming election amidst the coronavirus pandemic, economic uncertainty, and the nation’s racial reckoning, EPU commissioned the 1,800-person survey (600 Black respondents, Latino respondents, and white respondents each) to track attitudes on race, class, and equity, as well as pertinent national issues and policies in the South. This is the third in a series of surveys by EPU focused on the American South, the first of which was released in October 2019. A second survey with a focus on the coronavirus pandemic was released in June 2020.

“On the eve of the 2020 election, the racial divide in the American South is very clear and serves as a stark reminder of the challenge facing our country,” said Mitch Landrieu, founder, and president of E Pluribus Unum and former mayor of New Orleans. “From policy priorities to views on police reform and systemic racism, Black, white and Latino residents hold very different perspectives that shape the challenges facing the United States. This is not new. And we know from EPU’s ongoing work that common interests and compassion do exist across race, but the data underscore the hard work that needs to continue as America enters a new chapter.”

While the June 2020 survey found major shifts among white Southerners on issues related to systemic racism in the wake of the pandemic’s disparate impacts and the murder of George Floyd, this survey finds that some attitudes have reverted to previously held views. Meanwhile, Black respondents express increased concerns over race relations and national priorities. The survey, taken as voting begins across many Southern states, found that the stark racial differences on attitudes toward racism, policing and other issues get blurred when taking partisanship into account. Democrats across race share common views and the same holds true for Republicans across race. That is, Black Democrats have similar attitudes to white and Latino Democrats, and white Republicans have similar attitudes to Latino Republicans. Educational attainment is another demographic where the racial divide narrows, but not nearly as much as party identification.

Key Findings on COVID-19 in the South

  • Overall, the coronavirus pandemic and the economy are the top priorities among Southerners surveyed.
  • There are large differences by race on whether the pace of the economic re-opening is too fast, not fast enough or about right. A majority of Black Southerners (53%) and a plurality of Latino Southerners (40%) believe their city or county is re-opening too fast. Meanwhile, 42% of white respondents say re-opening is occurring at the right pace. Mirroring national numbers, just 18% overall say their community is opening “not fast enough.”
  • When asked if they plan to get a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available, just 27% of Black respondents said “yes” with 58% saying “no”. Latino respondents were nearly evenly split, with 43% saying “yes” and 45% saying “no”. Among white respondents, 51% agreed to getting the vaccine when it is available compared to the 34% who said “no”. Among those who said they would not get the vaccine, Black residents were more likely (54%) to attribute this to not trusting this particular vaccine than an anti-vaccine posture overall. A plurality and a majority of white and Latino respondents, respectively, who said they wouldn’t take the vaccine said it was because they don’t trust vaccines in general.
  • Compared to June, there is some movement toward making big changes with recovery, with more Southerners of all races supporting big systemic change compared to June 2020. Still, on the question of whether the President and Congress should focus on making big systemic changes to address inequities exposed by the coronavirus or to just take steps to restore systems as quickly as possible, racial gaps remain.

Key Findings on the 2020 Elections

  • When asked which two issues are most important in determining their vote, Black Southerners overwhelmingly named racial justice (49%) and the coronavirus pandemic (44%). White and Latino respondents selected the pandemic and the economy as their top choices. Healthcare was the third choice among all races. Interestingly, the education level of the respondents did not impact the issue prioritization.
  • There are very large racial divisions along with political measures such as motivation to vote and presidential vote choice, underscoring the sharp schisms that often define our nation’s politics. White respondents strongly support Trump and express the highest motivation to vote, while Black respondents overwhelmingly support Biden and are slightly less motivated than white respondents to vote. Latino respondents support Biden at levels that are comparable to white respondents, and they are the least motivated to vote.
  • Black respondents are slightly more likely to vote early with 64% saying they will vote absentee or by mail or early in person, compared to 60% of Latino and 53% of white respondents.
  • There is general confidence in having a fair election, but Black Southerners, in particular, are concerned over ballot access.

Key Findings on Race Relations and Systemic Racism

  • There remain clear racial divides in opinion regarding the causes of socioeconomic disparities in America. Even though large racial gaps remain regarding the causes of living in poverty, there has been a striking movement among white Southerners’ views since our initial survey 12 months ago. A majority of white respondents (51%) now attribute poverty to a lack of opportunity rather than poor life choices. This is considerably less than Black respondents at 78%, but it marks a very striking shift among white respondents over the past 12 months (from -2 to +10 lack of opportunity/poor life choices). This shift is less dramatic than what we saw in June, though 51% of white respondents attributing poverty to lack of opportunity remains the same. Over the same period, Black and Latino respondents are much more likely to cite “lack of opportunity” as the cause compared to “poor life choices.” Women, non-college-educated, and younger respondents are driving the changes among the white residents.
  • Pluralities of all races view systemic or institutional racism as a major problem (41% of white, 72% of Black, and 54% of Latino respondents), though 36% of white and 22% of Latino respondents do not believe systemic racism is a major problem. Nearly one-fifth of the sample was not familiar with the concept of systemic or institutional racism.
  • While Latino respondents often hold views on race that fall in between the wide gap between Black and white respondents, this latest research suggests some movement on attitudes related to systemic racism in the aftermath of the pandemic and racial justice protests. Over the past year, Latino respondents have moved significantly on the question of whether systemic racism is a problem. In October 2019, 30% of Latino respondents said they were not familiar with systemic racism. This has fallen to 19% who now say they are not familiar, and a majority of Latino respondents (54%) now believe system racism is a major problem.
  • A majority of Black respondents (69%) and a plurality (45%) of Latino respondents think too little attention is paid to race and racial issues today in the United States. Meanwhile, nearly half (47%) of white respondents believe too much attention is paid to race and racial issues in the U.S.
  • Respondents of all races agree on one thing–race relations are worse than they were five years ago with 49% of white, 72% of Black and 57% of Latino respondents saying race relations are worse today. The answer is more split on whether race relations are better, the same or worse today compared to 50 years ago. A plurality of Black respondents (39%) agreed it was worse today than 50 years ago, while 48% of white respondents viewed race relations as better today. Latino respondents were mixed (28% “better”, 38% “about the same” and 32% “worse”). Across race, people are less positive about progress over the past 50 years compared to October 2019.
  • On the question of whether white people in the United States have more economic opportunities and better access to healthcare, white respondents reverted to the views captured in 2019 on these issues of unequal economic opportunity. A majority (52%) of white respondents say they do not have more economic opportunity and 58% of white respondents say they do not have better healthcare access, driven largely by the views of those respondents that are non-college educated. Meanwhile, majorities of Black and Latino respondents noted that white Southerners had more economic opportunity and better access to healthcare by large, double-digit margins. There is some breakdown of gender and age around these questions. Latina women and white women, as well as younger Latino and white respondents, are more likely than men and older counterparts to cite white Americans as having economic advantages.

Key Findings on Police Reform

  • While Black respondents strongly support numerous police reforms, the support of white respondents is much weaker, particularly on changes that address the use of force and the role of police in a community. Latino Southerners are more supportive of reforms than white Southerners are, but not as supportive as Black respondents are.
  • There is broad support across race for requiring officers to step in when other officers are using excessive force (90% white, 88% Black and 90% Latino respondents), as well as requiring the reporting of all instances of deadly force used against civilians (88% white, 90% Black and 87% Latino respondents).
  • There’s a wide racial gap on the question of who is responsible for the deaths of Black men and women in police custody. A plurality of white respondents (39%) believe it is the behavior of individuals in police custody themselves most responsible. A plurality of both Black and Latino respondents said a “racist police system” is most responsible (42% of Black and 31% of Latino respondents), though Latino respondents’ views were mixed.
  • Still, racial divides exist on whether reforms will go too for or not far enough. White respondents are concerned that lawmakers will go too far with police reform (48% “too far” and 34% “not far enough”), and Black residents are concerned that lawmakers will not go far enough (65% “not far enough”). A large plurality of Latino respondents say reforms will not go far enough (48%) versus going too far (31%).
  • Black and Latino respondents are much more likely to attribute the deaths of Black men and women in police custody to a “racist police system”, whereas white respondents are more likely to say these deaths are the result of the behavior of the individuals in custody.
  • White respondents opposed “re-imagining policing, so police officers only deal with violent crime and robbery while assigning non-violent situations to mental health professionals and other experts” in equal numbers as they approved of the concept. Meanwhile, 74% of Black respondents and 62% of Latino respondents approve of the concept of “re-imagining policing.”

Landrieu closed, “Despite the many divisions and clear challenges to bridge racial differences, the survey reveals some hopeful trends to build upon, including notable movement across all three racial groups on how U.S. leaders should approach the pandemic recovery and racial inequities. We have a lot of work ahead and E Pluribus Unum stands ready to help close these gaps.”

A comprehensive analysis of the E Pluribus Unum’s third Southern Survey is available here.

GBAO Strategies of Washington, D.C. conducted the survey on landlines, cellphones, and an online panel from October 7-12, 2020. Latino respondents were given the option of taking the survey in English or Spanish. The margin of error for each racial group is +/- 4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.


About E Pluribus Unum

E Pluribus Unum is an initiative created to fulfill America’s promise of justice and opportunity for all by breaking down the barriers that divide us by race and class. In its first year, the E Pluribus Unum team traveled extensively across the American South to uncover and confront the challenges we face, to learn from people about what separates us and what can bring us together, and to find bold and effective solutions to tackle the modern legacy of Jim Crow so that an inclusive new South may be born. Incubated at Emerson Collective and led by former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the E Pluribus Unum team is building a series of programs and initiatives to cultivate courageous leaders who are committed to realizing an inclusive vision for a new South, champion transformative policies to reverse the enduring harms of America’s Jim Crow era past for those who continue to experience them today and change narratives that perpetuate systemic and interpersonal racism in order to shift people’s attitudes and behaviors.