The onward march of progress: Gallup reports today that overall US public approval of interracial marriage stands at an all-time high of 85% – up from 4% barely 50 years ago. What’s really striking is the almost linear trendline:
Predictably, it slows during Republican administrations, and jumped dramatically during the Clinton years, but overall that’s a steady straight line from virtually universal, open racism (at the height of “The Greatest Generation”‘s pro-segregation stagnation) to overwhelming acceptance just two generations later. There are no significant reversals of the trend over that period.
Even more interesting is that the trend is the result of major shifts in opinion within generations: even older people, taken in groups, have shifted their opinions 30% or more in only 20 years.
Of course, the news isn’t all positive. The lowest percentage approvals are found among the typical troglodyte contingencies: “Southerners, Republicans, conservatives, and those with no college education”, as well as the oldest age cohort. But even among those groups the vast majority approves, and the shifts have been huge (again: 50 years ago, 96% of the entire population disapproved).
Which goes to reinforce a general point about progress: it surely isn’t guaranteed, but it is not impossible, or even rare. And it is incremental: when irrational prejudices are dissolved, they don’t return. And it feeds off of almost-inevitable demographic trends: as the population becomes more diverse, as people become more educated, and as more-prejudiced generations die out, large-scale shifts occur in the direction of greater comfort and greater knowledge (i.e., away from prejudice and toward acceptance). Conservatism and prejudice are both doomed for the same reason: people don’t voluntarily give up what they’ve learned, and when they’ve learned the truth – about so many things – they turn away from conservatism, reactionism, and prejudice.
As Gallup notes:
The trend mimics the growing support for gay marriage — though Americans are still less likely to accept that practice than interracial marriage. It also follows the trend toward increasing racial tolerance on other measures such as voting for a black president and an increasing belief in progress and equality for blacks in the U.S. more generally.
In all of these cases, opinion shifts have been dramatic. In all of these cases and others, the eventual cure will be the same as regarding marriage: truth, time, and demographics.
This has implications for other progressive causes. Ethnic prejudices are relatively responsive to education because they are so fully grounded on stereotypes and prejudice, and also because it doesn’t cost anything to give them up. Other conservative issues persist because they have been deliberately obfuscated as to their factual basis, they depend on scientific questions that may seem counter-intuitive to people who are ignorant of the facts, and they have been worked into religion in such a way that giving up one’s prejudice regarding the factual issue also requires giving up some part of one’s religious beliefs. This is true in varying degrees of all the hot-button “red meat” issues that conservatives continue to inflame to maintain their base: abortion, birth control, evolution, global warming, environmentalism, economic policy, and a bewildering variety of other issues – all of them issues on which there are clear and established facts that lead to an unambiguous enlightened or progressive position, and which have been systematically distorted through lies and religious demagoguery.
The solution in these cases is to create a dynamic similar to that in cases of prejudice pure and simple: create familiarity, expose the lies, create conditions in which the younger generation grows up with the un-prejudiced perception as a default. In some ways progressives have done this (the “I Had an Abortion” T-shirt is one attempt; Gay Pride parades are another). In many ways reactionaries have chosen the same tactics (the desperate proselytizing you see on high school and college campuses is an attempt to convert the young before they get too comfortable with progress; home-schooling and public-school creationism are attempts to shut out the truth before they learn it); they’re fighting a battle against reality itself, so it’s more problematic for them, but they at least know how to fight it. The increasingly-visible atheist contingent is an important trend as well: whether or not most people become atheists, it does a lot of good to put the idea in their minds that they can make their own decisions about religion, and that religion is not a default social constraint that everyone has to live by against their will.
Nothing is certain, but history is inherently progressive.
Addendum: The dumbest headline on this issue comes from Andew Malcolm’s column in the LA Times: “Not that it matters to interracial couples, but Americans near unanimity in approval”. Well, of course it matters. That headline could only have been written by someone (probably an editor, not Malcolm himself) who had the luxury of ignoring the issue. Even though interracial marriage has been legal since Loving v. Virginia in 1967 (back when less than 20% of the nation approved of interracial marriage, and the Supreme Court did the nation a favor with its judicial activism), the fact that prejudice has always existed has always mattered to those who were its targets. I presume the headline was intended to reflect the fact that interracial marriage has always existed regardless of public feeling – which is true. But changes in public feeling have a tremendous impact on how well people can actually make use of the legal rights they nominally have – consider current attempts to block legal gay marriages by allowing Christians to refuse to provide services to gay couples, or even register the fact of the marriage in county clerks’ offices; consider also attempts to block access to abortion through legal restrictions that make it inaccessible even though legal, and to allow Christian healthcare providers to refuse to provide services they personally disapprove of. In addition, the simple ability to feel that one has a place in one’s own community – to be free from prejudice and harassment even when it does not amount to legal discrimination – is of immense importance, and something that people from majority groups take for granted. Prejudice has a tremendously debilitating affect, even when it does not amount to legal discrimination. For that reason, progressivism in all its aspects is a great victory for so much of society whose interests can otherwise conveniently be dismissed.