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Americans Say Government Should Address Slavery Effects

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — As the U.S. marks the Juneteenth holiday commemorating the emancipation of U.S. slaves, a recent Gallup Center on Black Voices survey finds that most Americans believe Black people today have been affected by the history of slavery in the U.S. and that the federal government has a responsibility to address those effects. Americans who think the government is responsible generally believe all Black Americans, rather than just those descended from slaves, should benefit from programs to address the effects of slavery. But the public is divided on whether the federal government should formally apologize for slavery.

These results are based on an October 2021 Gallup Center on Black Voices web survey that interviewed over 13,000 U.S. adults, including large samples of 3,994 Non-Hispanic Black, 3,399 Hispanic and 5,807 Non-Hispanic White Americans. All interviews were conducted in English.

Americans Perceive History of Slavery Affecting Black People Today

Americans are more likely to think that the history of slavery has at least some effect on Black people today than to think it has little to no effect. Forty percent of Americans say Black people are affected “a lot” by the history of slavery, with 27% perceiving “some” effect, 16% “not much” of one and 17% no effect at all.

Black Americans are about twice as likely as White Americans, 63% to 32%, to say the history of slavery affects Black people “a lot.” Half of Hispanic Americans hold this view.

Public Views Government as Responsible for Addressing Effects of Slavery

The majority of Americans, 62%, believe the U.S. government has a responsibility to take action to reduce the impacts of slavery, while 37% say the government does not. Majorities of Black, Hispanic and White adults agree that the government has a responsibility, although Black (83%) and Hispanic (71%) Americans are more likely than White Americans (54%) to say this.

Two-thirds (65%) of those who say the government has a responsibility to address the effects of slavery believe all Black Americans should benefit from these efforts, while 32% say only descendants of slaves should. These attitudes are generally similar by racial and ethnic group; between 63% and 69% of Black, Hispanic and White respondents who view the government as responsible say all Black people should benefit.

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Even as the public thinks the government is responsible for addressing the effects of slavery, they are divided as to whether it should issue an official apology for the nation’s history of slavery. Forty-seven percent of U.S. adults say the government should apologize, and 52% say it should not. Most Black adults, 73%, say the government should apologize, as do 55% of Hispanic adults. White adults are more likely to believe the government should not apologize (62%) than to say it should (38%).

In 2008, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution that apologized for slavery, and the U.S. Senate adopted a different resolution in 2009. The two chambers have never passed a joint bill, so it is unclear whether those prior actions constitute an official government apology.

Family History Has Modest Impact on Attitudes

Ongoing effects of slavery are especially relevant to Black Americans who are direct descendants of slaves. The survey asked respondents to indicate whether their ancestors came to the U.S. before or after the Civil War. Forty-four percent of Black respondents said their ancestors came to the U.S. before the Civil War; 15% said their ancestors came afterward; and 41% did not know or didn’t respond.

Generally speaking, Black Americans whose ancestors came to the U.S. before the Civil War are more inclined than those whose ancestors came afterward to believe the history of slavery impacts Black people “a lot” and to say the government is responsible for addressing the effects of slavery. The two subgroups of Black Americans do not differ meaningfully on whether the government should issue an apology for the history of slavery or whether descendants of slaves should be the only beneficiaries of government policy to address the effects of slavery.

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The views of Black Americans who aren’t sure when their ancestors came to the U.S. fall between the pre-Civil War and post-Civil War groups’ views, in terms of how much they think slavery impacts Black people today and whether the government is responsible. They are more similar to the post-Civil War group on a government apology and whether only descendants of slaves should benefit from government actions to address the effects of slavery.

More generally, among all Americans, whether their ancestors came to the U.S. before or after the Civil War makes little difference in their attitudes about the effects of slavery. The one exception is that Americans whose ancestors came before the Civil War (41%) are modestly more likely than those whose ancestors came after it (30%) to say the history of slavery impacts Black people “a lot.”

Bottom Line

As Americans commemorate the Juneteenth holiday, most believe the history of slavery still reverberates in the lives of Black people in the U.S. today, with four in 10 saying it affects Black people “a lot.” The public believes the government is responsible for addressing those effects but does not favor issuing an apology for the history of slavery. The first step may involve passing legislation, or the president issuing an executive order, to set up a committee to study reparations for slavery, something that appears to have support in the Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives, if not the Senate. The state of California set up its own commission to study the issue and recently released its report. Other state or local governments have set up similar commissions or are considering doing so.

Learn more about how the Gallup Panel works.

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