- Distrust of Islam is definitely on the rise in the U.S., but Americans have historically been less critical of Muslim people than the religion
- Americans believe racism is a growing problem, but whites are less likely to share that view than minorities
- Europeans are generally more anti-immigrant than Americans, but American views vary wildly depending on income and education
People can be forgiven for looking at the U.S. and wondering whether it will soon boil over in a black stew of racial, ethnic, and religious venom. They see in the rise of Donald Trump an appeal grounded in racial and ethnic resentment, because his railing against trade deals and the elites can’t alone explain this kind of devotion. Lurking beneath has to be a big dollop of old-fashioned racism, right?
More likely, both could be at least a bit right. It’s certainly true that, by a number of measures, fear and tension based on race, ethnicity, and religion in the U.S. are on the rise and are worst than in Europe. But Americans also have better overall impressions of immigrants than many European counties.
First, views on Islam and Muslims
Americans’ views of Islam are worst than they were just after 9/11.
Three weeks after those attacks, Americans actually had more favorable than unfavorable views of Islam, by a mark of 47 percent to 39 percent, according to an ABC News poll from the time. By 2011, even before the recent string of terrorist attacks in the western world, a poll found that 61 percent of Americans now held unfavorable views toward Islam. A more recent 2015 YouGov poll puts unfavorable views of Islam at 55 percent, but it looks like opinions are worst than they were just after 9/11, and that’s saying something.
Perhaps more striking – and a development without historical comparison from sheer lack of having ever asked the question – is support in surveys for an outright ban on Muslims entering the country.
A Morning Consult poll in March shows that 50 percent of all voters support a temporary ban on Muslims travelling to the U.S. Sure, there’s a clear partisan divide, with 71 percent of Republicans and 34 percent of Democrats supporting the ban, but that’s still half of Americans.
It’s harder to make direct comparisons with Europe, because polling there has been more directed at attitudes toward Muslims themselves, whom Americans generally view more favorably, than toward the Islamic religion. A 2015 ICM/Pew poll of 7 European countries found that Italians have the most unfavorable views of Muslims, at 63 percent, followed by Greeks and Pols at 53 percent and 50 percent respectively. Thirty-three percent of Germans and 26 percent of Brits have unfavorable views toward Muslims. The most recent slew of polls, though, came before Paris and Brussels, so those numbers could very well come down – and by a lot.
Americans views on Muslims themselves differ based on whether the respondent actually knows Muslims, improving to 42 percent unfavorable for people who know some Muslims very well, but by recent polling that’s still worst than much of Europe.
On favorable views of immigrants, Americans score better than a number of European countries but fall behind Germany by a wide margin and just narrowly behind the U.K. 51 percent of Americans believe immigrants strengthen their communities, according to a 2015 Pew poll, compared with 66 percent of Germans, 52 percent of Brits, 47 percent of Spaniards and 45 percent of French. Americans come way ahead of Pols, Greeks, and Italians.
But Europeans as a whole are significantly more likely to say immigration should be lowered than Americans, according to Gallup.
As with many things in the U.S., views toward immigration vary widely by demographics, political affiliation, race and age. Young people, people with at least a bachelor’s degree, and Democrats are more likely to have favorable views of immigrants, according to a 2015 Pew poll.
One last thing that pollsters have clearly hit on are rising perceptions of racial tension in the U.S. and rising resentment among white Americans.
Nearly 50 percent of Americans think racism is a big problem in the U.S. today, according to a CNN/Kaiser poll from late 2015, up from 41 percent in 1995 and way up from the 28 percent of respondents in 2011 who said the same. It’s the stark rise since 2011 that should especially catch your eye. It’s almost like you can see the post-racial-society illusions of Americans burst into flames.
It should also be noted, of course, that there’s a racial divide within the view of whether racism is a problem. Sixty-six percent of blacks and 64 percent of Hispanics identify racism as a big problem, compared with just 43 percent of whites. That’s especially unsurprising when you consider that another 2015 poll, this one from the Public Religion Research Institute, found that 43 percent of Americans think discrimination against whites has become as big of a problem as that against racial minorities. An even larger share, 53 percent, said the American “way of life” has changed for the worst since 1950.
Anyone who has watched video of Trump rallies and read or watched interviews with his supporters can tell you that last factoid especially animates his voters. It’s a sentiment that he’s made his currency.