Sure, there were a lot of haters in Charlottesville, Virginia. That shouldn’t obscure some better news, which is that the U.S. is becoming a more accepting and tolerant nation. Unlike President Donald Trump, most citizens don’t equivocate when asked their opinion of the hate groups that descended on Virginia two weeks ago.
One of the most interesting changes over the years is in attitudes toward interracial marriage. In 1968, a year after interracial marriage was given constitutional protection, 73 percent of the public opposed these unions, including one-third of African-Americans. Only 20 percent approved of them. By 2013, the last year Gallup’s pollsters asked the question, attitudes had dramatically reversed: 87 percent of poll respondents approved of interracial marriage and only 11 were opposed.
According to the Pew Research Center, 7 percent of Americans consider themselves multi-racial. This is an accelerating trend embraced by young people.
While most multi-racial people say they’ve been targets of racial slurs or jokes, almost none think their status is a liability. One in five, the Pew survey finds, say it’s an advantage, while three-quarters say it has made no difference in their daily lives or career.
The Pew Center’s conclusion: Multi-racial Americans “are at the cutting edge of social and demographic changes in the U.S. - young, proud, tolerant and growing at a rate three times as fast as the population as a whole.”
Same-sex marriage is also widely accepted - just a few years after even liberal Democratic politicians like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton put themselves on record as opponents.
White nationalists like Trump’s deposed White House aide Steve Bannon contend that Americans yearn for the bygone age when intolerance was the norm. No doubt some of them do. Bannon grew up in Virginia, a state that massively resisted school integration in the 1950s; he was a teenager there in 1967 when the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the state law barring interracial marriage in its famous Loving v. Virginia decision.
But changing attitudes accompany changing realities. One way to measure social change is to look at the Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, a statistical overview of social indicators like crime, the family, youth behavior, popular culture and religion launched by the conservative commentator Bill Bennett in 1994.
After soaring for decades, many key indicators of social decay started to fall in the first years of the 21st century. Violent crime, abortion and divorce, for example, began trending downward. So did out-of-wedlock births
Credit for the latter should be given to educational efforts in the public sector and to private groups like the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancies. Carol Hogue, a maternal and child-health specialist at Emory University, says women are engaging in “better use of contraceptives,” adding: “If all couples used a combination of condoms with an IUD or combined oral contraceptive, there would be fewer maternal deaths, 80 percent fewer unintended pregnancies and about 150,000 fewer abortions.”
Today, rates of crime and divorce have fallen to levels unseen since the 1970s. By 2014, the abortion rate had dropped to the lowest level since the Supreme Court made abortion a constitutional right in 1973.
There’s still too much crime, too much illicit drug use, too many fractured families, and still too much bigotry. Blacks and whites see racial progress in depressingly different terms. A rising death rate among middle-aged white Americans, reflecting increases in alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide amid the decline of middle-class jobs, is also cause for profound concern.
But the country’s social fabric is nevertheless healthier than it was a decade or two ago. So are its social attitudes. The hatemongers of Charlottesville are a despicable fringe.
Albert Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.