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Views on race relations in state alter dramatically as more white people see reality of discrimination, survey shows

A peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Manhattan Beach in June.
Several hundred Black Lives Matter protesters take a knee and hold their fists in the air during a moment of silence to honor George Floyd during a peaceful protest march from Manhattan Beach to the Hermosa Beach Pier Plaza on June 2.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Californians’ perceptions of race relations in the state have shifted dramatically since the spring, with views statewide having grown significantly gloomier than they were five months ago, according to a new statewide poll.

The survey, which compares its results to a similar poll conducted in February, offers a before-and-after look at how Californians’ attitudes have shifted in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak, George Floyd’s death and the nationwide demonstrations that ensued.

Some 54% of respondents said that relations between people of different races and ethnicities in California were just fair or poor, an uptick of 13 points since February. The number of California adults who believe those relations were excellent or good dropped from 57% to 44%, the poll found. The shift, the poll indicated, occurred across racial and ethnic groups in relatively equal numbers.

White Californians are now much more likely than they were earlier this year to say that Black people, Latinos and Asians are “frequently” discriminated against. The uptick comes as data have shown that the virus disproportionately affects Black and Latino communities, and has led to an explosion in anti-Asian hate incidents, said Paul Ong, director of UCLA’s Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, who was not involved in the poll.

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“The impacts are unevenly distributed — whether we’re talking about health, whether we’re talking employment or stability or negative racial encounters,” Ong said. “Under COVID-19, those things have become much more visible and a lot deeper.”

The poll also found that respondents do not attribute the rising tensions to the recent protests over race and social justice.

On the contrary, most Californians, 55%, believe that protests over the deaths of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others have brought people in the state together, rather than splitting them further apart. A plurality of respondents described the protests as “justified” and “impactful,” at 31%, but also as “violent” and “dangerous” — 30% and 28%, respectively.

“The categories aren’t and don’t have to be mutually exclusive,” said Drew Lieberman, senior vice president at Strategies 360, the polling and research firm that conducted the survey.

According to the survey, 67% of Black respondents say that they face frequent discrimination in California. And although the poll shows that whites have become more likely to acknowledge discrimination against people of color, it registered a small countertrend in the increased portion of whites who asserted that white people face discrimination, and the number of whites who said that their racial identity is “extremely important” to them. Both those numbers have gone up, especially among Republicans and Trump supporters.

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Respondents took part online in the California Community Poll from June 26 through July 6. The survey was commissioned by the Center for Asian Americans United for Self Empowerment, Hispanas Organized for Political Equality and the Los Angeles Urban League in consultation with The Times. Strategies 360 polled 1,184 adult citizens. The margin of sampling error is 3 percentage points.

In addition to taking the pulse on race in the aftermath of nationwide protests, the poll also exposed the manner in which the COVID-19 pandemic “colors everything else that’s going on right now,” Lieberman added.

The poll also found that a majority of Californians believe police treat Black people unfairly and perceive systemic racism in law enforcement — a question that was not part of the February survey. Respondents were more divided on how police treat Latinos (46% believe Latinos are treated fairly, while 48% believe they are treated unfairly) and believe that police treat Asians and whites mostly fairly.

And while nearly all of those surveyed support police reform, Californians are divided on which reforms they support. Some 6% would abolish police departments and shift their funding and responsibilities to other agencies, while 12% would leave departments as they are and ensure they have the equipment and funding they need to do their jobs properly.

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Another 45% support additional accountability and training, and 32% would go further to shift significant parts of police funding and responsibilities to other agencies while maintaining their role in handling violent crime.

“We’re facing a lot of these conversations, not because they’re new, but because of environment,” said Helen Torres, executive director of HOPE. “There’s huge racial inequalities in our communities and our society, and that creates frustration across the board.”

The data show substantial racial gaps on police reform, with Black respondents most likely to favor shifting funding and responsibilities away from police and whites least likely to endorse such major reforms.

Just over 45% of Black respondents say they would shift funds away from police, while 34% of Latinos and 28% of whites feel that way.

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Police reform “is at the heart of a lot of the discussions that are going on,” said Michael Lawson, president of the Los Angeles Urban League.

“It is at the core of what Black Lives Matter is demanding, and is an essential part of moving forward,” Lawson said. “There have been discussions going back to the Rodney King situation. This is a continuation of that.”

The recent spate of police killings of unarmed Black Americans and subsequent protests has also led to a change in perceptions on discrimination, Lawson added.

“The visibility of people standing in the streets and saying, ‘Enough is enough’ is a big change,” he said. “There is something different. The needle has moved.”

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Compared with February, white respondents are 18 points more likely to believe Black Americans are discriminated against frequently (from 22% saying as much in February to 40%), 10 points more likely to believe Latinos are discriminated against frequently (from 22% to 32%), and 13 points more likely to believe Asians are discriminated against frequently (from 7% to 20%).

There is a “continuing hierarchy” in which respondents perceive Black Americans to be the most affected by discrimination, followed by Latinos and Asian Americans, Ong noted.

Charlie Woo, the board chair of CAUSE, said it was important for Californians to understand that Asian Americans are also discriminated against.

“People need to be aware of the challenges we face,” Woo said. “The fact that Californians [now] recognize Asian Americans don’t just fit in as model minorities, but also are discriminated against and face challenges ... that’s big progress.”


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