Black and white Americans differ vastly on the legacy of slavery in the U.S.

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
September 25, 2023, 10:08 PM GMT+0

Black and white Americans have vastly different views on the legacy of slavery in the U.S. and its effects on descendants of slaves, polling by YouGov finds. While about half of Americans think slavery continues to influence society at least a fair amount — and nearly half believe that Black Americans still face discrimination in each of a half dozen spheres — just one-third believe that U.S. wealth is significantly tied to work done in the past by slaves. And while a large share of Americans believe the government should apologize to Black descendants of slaves, only around one-third believe they should make cash payments to them.

A legacy of slavery and discrimination

To what extent does slavery still influence American society? About half of Americans (52%) believe that the legacy of slavery still influences U.S. society today at least a fair amount. Black Americans (78%) and Democrats (77%) are especially likely to say this. Just 13% of Americans say it doesn't influence society at all

Is U.S. wealth tied to slavery? Black Americans (65%) are more than twice as likely as white Americans (26%) to believe that the current wealth of the country is significantly tied to work done in the past by slaves. Democrats (50%) are far more likely to believe this than Republicans (15%).

Which Black Americans, if any, do Americans think are affected by the legacy of slavery? About half of people (49%) believe the legacy of slavery currently affects all Black Americans, while 14% believe it affects only Black descendants of slaves. Nearly one in five (17%) say it affects no Black Americans. Three-quarters of Black Americans (75%) believe all Black Americans are affected by slavery's legacy, compared to only 42% of white Americans who think this.

The survey also asked how the legacy of slavery affects white Americans. Nearly one-third (30%) of Americans say it affects all white Americans, 13% say it affects only descendants of slave owners, and 27% say it doesn't affect any white Americans. On this question, Black and white Americans don't have significantly different opinions.

In what contexts do Black Americans still face prejudice? Our survey asked whether in nine contexts discrimination against Black Americans is currently a problem, was in the past but isn't anymore, or was never a problem. Most Americans (58%) say discrimination against Black people is currently a problem in the criminal justice system and nearly half (46%) say it is a problem in the political system. Around two in five say there is currently a problem with discrimination in each of the following: the health care system (44%), the housing market (44%), the education system (43%), and the job market (43%). Fewer say it's a problem in the banking industry (34%), public transportation (25%), or the dating market (18%). Only a small number of people — typically fewer than 15% — say that, in each of the contexts asked about, there was never a problem with Black Americans facing discrimination

Black Americans are far more likely than white Americans to say that there are currently problems with discrimination against Black people in the U.S. These gaps are especially large in views on the education system, the banking industry, and the job market, with Black Americans being about 40 percentage points more likely than white Americans to say discrimination against them is currently a problem in these settings.

Addressing the effects of slavery

What, if anything, should the government do to address the country's legacy of slavery? Americans are divided on whether the U.S. government should apologize to Black Americans for slavery that once existed in the country: 43% say the government should apologize and 42% say it should not. Most Black Americans (77%) say the government should, compared to just 35% of white Americans. Most Democrats (70%) also think this, compared to 19% of Republicans.

Just one-quarter of Americans (24%) believe the U.S. government should make cash payments to all Black Americans. Slightly more — 31% — say Black Americans who are descendants of slaves should receive cash payments from the government. Large majorities of Black Americans support the government giving cash to all Black Americans (69%) and to Black slave descendants (72%).

Americans are more likely to support cash payments to Black slave descendants if the payments are made by private companies that profited from slavery: 36% say these companies should make payments, including 71% of Black Americans and 27% of white Americans.

Which policies would be effective at reducing inequalities between Black and white Americans? Of four policies asked about, Americans are most likely to say that inequality would be reduced a lot or some by providing educational grants (44%) or offering an admissions advantage to Black descendants of slaves (39%). Fewer say gaps between Black and white Americans would be reduced a lot or some by giving a hiring and promotions advantage (33%) or cash reparations (32%) to Black slave descendants.

One reason why Americans may be opposed to giving reparations to descendants of slaves is that they aren't very confident the government would be able to determine which Black Americans are descended from slaves. Just one-quarter (25%) say it would be very or somewhat easy for the government to do so, while 62% say it would be not very or not at all easy. Black and white Americans have different assessments: More than half of Black Americans (54%) say it would be very or somewhat easy, compared to just 19% of white Americans.

How many Black Americans are descended from slaves? More than one-quarter (28%) of Americans overall say all or most Black Americans today are descended from slaves, 13% say half are, and 35% say some or none are. Black Americans are nearly three times as likely as white Americans (60% vs. 21%) to believe all or most Black people in the U.S. today are descended from slaves.

About half of Americans (52%) believe that the government making cash reparations to Black descendants of slaves would increase racial divisions in the U.S., while 23% say it would have no effect on racial divisions, and 8% say it would decrease them. Black Americans (33%) are less likely than white Americans (57%) to say reparations would increase divisions, but Black Americans still are more likely to expect an increase in racial divisions from reparations than a decrease (18%).

— Carl Bialik contributed to this article

See the results for this YouGov poll

Methodology: This poll was conducted online on June 22 - 27, 2023 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to March 15, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 28% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 4%.

Image: Getty (Zave Smith)