Why I picked it up: As I continue to analyze research I fielded around American attitudes towards inclusive history, anything that feeds into that analysis will inevitably catch my eye. The stat that nearly half of whites think a majority nonwhite population will weaken American culture certainly did that, and as places of American culture, museums need to pay attention to these attitudes.
What you need to know: Pew asked Americans to consider what they thought America would be like in 30 years, and found widespread pessimism, with respondents believing that the US will decline in worldwide importance while our American society becomes increasingly unequal and increasingly polarized. While this pessimism could reflect current dissatisfaction with the current state of the country (nearly 3/4 are dissatisfied with that), it also highlights very real challenges that we are grappling with.
The report focused on perceived challenges in four areas (perceived because they were asking what Americans thought about the future):
My focus, however, was on American culture, and here things were, well, interesting. While only 23% of respondents said that a shift to a majority nonwhite population (estimated in 2050) would be "bad," whites were about twice as likely to say so than people of color. Additionally, whites were about twice as likely to feel that this shift would weaken American culture.
Yet interestingly, minorities are more optimistic about the country's future than whites. I wonder what drives this, and speculate it may be because whites may be more likely to see a majority minority future as a challenge, whereas minorities may see it as an opportunity.
While race, age, and education affected how people responded, the bigger gap in the survey was between Republicans and Democrats … a gap that I see in my research as well. People's political attitudes reflect their social attitudes in highly pervasive ways, and Republicans and Democrats agree on very little in this research. Bridging that gap (whether in politics or in attitudes towards inclusive history, DEAI, science and the environment, or anything else), will be a challenge that affects all of us … including museums.
Implications for museums: One of the things I have been thinking about in my work is how we bridge the gaps in our polarized society, and how much political persuasion correlates with what side someone takes on an issue. This report underscored those gaps today and projects them into the future in ways that are clearly troubling. Yet I keep coming back to a question: what are the shared values we still have? Then, how can we use those shared values to allow real conversations about our pasts, our environment, our communities, our different backgrounds, and our country today? And what should be the role of museums in sparking curiosity about others, gaining knowledge, and developing empathy, understanding, and tolerance? Because someone has to … and that work may be the work of museums as one of the few places that are trusted and considered safe for just that kind of exploration.
Read or skip? The big takeaway is it underscores how divided our country really is, and in ways that affect museums. Internalize that, and you can probably skip in favor of research more specific to how it affects museums. But if you want to get really depressed, go read it. It doesn't paint a particularly optimistic portrait of the future or for an America that is willing to come together to tackle problems.
Full citation: "Looking to the Future, Public Sees an America in Decline on Many Fronts." Pew Research Center. March 2019
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.