What is ‘Woke?’ New UMass Amherst Poll Asks Americans their Views on Culture Issues
Topline results and crosstabs for the poll can be found at www.umass.edu/poll
A new national University of Massachusetts Amherst Poll has surveyed Americans’ views on some of the culture issues being used by politicians to divide the country, including diversity, trans rights, antisemitism, immigration and even the definition of the political buzzword of the day – “woke.”
“As the field of candidates vying for the Republican nomination for president takes shape, a common theme emanating from these candidates is an opposition to the nation’s turn toward ‘wokeism,’ with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis boldly declaring that his state is ‘where woke goes to die,’” says Tatishe Nteta, provost professor of political science at UMass Amherst and director of the poll. “Americans seem to be attentive to this discussion of the prospect of a ‘woke’ nation, as three in four Americans have heard ‘a lot’ or ‘some’ about the term woke. However, former President Donald Trump has opined that ‘half of the people can’t even define it’ and more recently conservative thinker Bethany Mandel famously stammered and struggled to define the term in a clip that became a viral sensation.
We found that for most, the term that best describes woke is its synonym, ‘aware,’ with many speaking to the racial implications of the term – a callback to the origins of the term in the African American community
Tatishe Nteta, provost professor of political science at UMass Amherst and director of the UMass Amherst Poll
“What then does ‘woke’ mean to Americans?” Nteta asks. “We found that for most, the term that best describes woke is its synonym, ‘aware,’ with many speaking to the racial implications of the term – a callback to the origins of the term in the African American community where it was meant as a clarion call for people to awaken to the role of systemic racism in shaping the lives of people of color.”
One of the topics most frequently covered by the overarching term “woke” is diversity issues, and the new poll of 1,133 Americans gauged respondents’ views of diversity in Hollywood’s entertainment offerings.
“Although most Americans seem fine about increasing the representation of diversity in television and film, there is a hard core of Americans – between 20-30% – who oppose this,” says Jesse Rhodes, professor of political science at UMass Amherst and co-director of the poll. “This likely reflects these Americans’ general anxiety about increasing racial and ethnic diversity in American society, and the growing influence of people of color in our politics.”
“The release of Disney’s live-action version of ‘The Little Mermaid,’ in which African American actress Halle Bailey plays the role of Ariel, ignited a firestorm of controversy with some questioning why Disney replaced the originally white cartoon character of Ariel with an African American actress,” Nteta explains. “While a plurality of Americans (39%) take little issue in general with the increasing diversity seen in film and television as well as specific instances of African American actors (41%) inhabiting roles once played by white actors, this issue has emerged as another front in the partisan battlefield of American politics. While over 60% of Democrats and progressives express support for diversity in films and television, less than 20% of Republicans and conservatives express this same viewpoint.”
Increased representation is not limited to our movie theater screens, TVs and streaming devices, however, and classrooms, libraries and scholastic athletics have increasingly become focal points for the debate over access to diverse.
“With many deriding the so called ‘woke’ turn in the nation, America’s public schools have increasingly become a battleground in the ideological war over changing norms concerning gender identity, sexual orientation and race,” Nteta says. “A number of states have removed books that discuss the country’s racial legacy and history under the pretense that these books discuss race in a manner that is inappropriate for our children and young adults. However, these policies are unpopular among the mass public, as only a quarter (24%) of Americans support the removal of these books. This policy is also opposed by large swaths of Republicans, conservatives, and Trump voters, as only four in 10 support removing books on race that parents may disapprove of.”
This is also a story about how education influences adults’ willingness to tolerate diversity and difference. Americans with the least education are most willing to ban books, while those with more education are much less likely to support this.
Jesse Rhodes, professor of political science at UMass Amherst and co-director of the UMass Amherst Poll
“Interestingly, while less than a quarter (24%) are willing to ban books discussing race, a significant fraction of Americans (41%) seems willing to ban books relating to sexual orientation from schools,” Rhodes says. “Americans are equally divided (41%-41%) between those who want parents to have the power to remove books containing discussions of sexual orientation from schools and those who do not. On its face, this seems to indicate that, today, teaching about sexual orientation is a bigger hot-button issue among Americans than is race.”
Rhodes adds that, “In part, this shows how education has become another front line in the nation’s culture wars, as the issue sharply divided Democrats and Republicans. But this is also a story about how education influences adults’ willingness to tolerate diversity and difference. Americans with the least education are most willing to ban books, while those with more education are much less likely to support this.”
“The culture war in the United States remains alive and well, with Democrats and Republicans in opposing trenches and schools and young people very much a focus,” says Alexander Theodoridis, associate professor of political science at UMass Amherst and co-director of the poll. “We find massive partisan gaps on cultural issues related to removal of books with discussions of sexual orientation, participation of trans athletes in school sports and banning gender-affirming medical care for youth.”
“With a number of states either passing or considering restrictive laws concerning the rights of trans children and their parents, our results suggest that while a majority support policies that restrict the ability of trans children from participating in sports that match their gender identity (52%), Americans are divided on policies that would preclude trans children and their parents from receiving gender affirming medical care,” Nteta says. “Thirty-nine percent of our poll’s respondents are in favor of these medical restrictions and 35% are opposed to such restrictions, with such policies particularly popular among Republicans and conservatives as more than six in 10 support restricting the rights of trans children and their parents. With Republicans controlling the majority of the nation’s state legislatures and occupying the majority of the governors’ offices, it is likely that bills that target the rights of trans children and their parents will continue unabated.”
The culture war in the United States remains alive and well, with Democrats and Republicans in opposing trenches and schools and young people very much a focus.
Alexander Theodoridis, associate professor of political science at UMass Amherst and co-director of the UMass Amherst Poll
“In contrast with available medical and social scientific evidence, a solid majority of Americans (60%) believes that gender is something that is permanent and cannot be changed,” Rhodes says. “Moreover, a majority of Americans are willing to ban transgender youth from sports teams that conform to their gender identity and more than a third would support legislation to make providing gender-affirming care to transgender young people a crime. These attitudes contribute to an environment that puts transgender people, particularly transgender young people, at risk.”
Rhodes adds that “By a significant margin, men are much more likely than women to want to ban books that discuss sexual orientation from schools. Men are more likely than women to support policies that discriminate against transgender people. These patterns say a lot about the way we construct gender in American society, and the implications it has for men’s attitudes.”
“The immigration issue is fraught for many important reasons, including that Americans want respect for U.S. borders,” says Raymond La Raja, professor of political science at UMass Amherst and co-director of the poll. “At the same time, it is important to point out that strong majorities of Americans remain committed to the kind of aspirational immigration of many of their forebears. We find that 64% of Americans support citizenship for “Dreamers” – the children of immigrants brought here illegally. And a similarly strong majority – 58% – also support allowing immigrants living here illegally to become citizens if they meet citizenship requirements and commit no crimes.”
Despite the fact the Founding Fathers were explicit about separating church and state... close to 40% believe that America ‘should always be a Christian nation.’ I think Washington, Jefferson, Madison & Franklin would be surprised at these poll numbers.
Raymond La Raja, professor of political science at UMass Amherst and co-director of the UMass Amherst Poll
“Americans have complicated attitudes about immigration,” Rhodes says. “On one hand, a disturbing percentage of Americans believes in tenets of the racist, xenophobic ‘Great Replacement Theory.’ But on the other hand, strong majorities of Americans want to provide opportunities for unauthorized immigrants who meet citizenship requirements and are positive contributors to society to become citizens. This shows that, while anxieties about immigrants are strong, they have not hardened into punitive attitudes toward immigrants – even unauthorized immigrants – living in the US today. Instead, a strong majority of Americans remains compassionate toward people living at the margins of American society.”
“While the more virulent aspects of the ‘Great Replacement Theory’ generally fail to garner majoritarian support outside of conservatives and Republicans,” Nteta says, “two key tenets of the theory have emerged as relatively popular: the belief that elected officials – and Democrats in particular – are supporting lax immigration policies (52%) and that they are doing so to mobilize voters that will support them (49%). Given this perspective concerning Democrats’ purported relationship with immigration, it should come as no shock that a number of prominent Republicans, most notably Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene, have called for President Biden’s impeachment based on his handling of the immigration crisis at the southern border.”
Rhodes agrees, saying “Troublingly, belief in tenets of the racist, xenophobic Great Replacement theory has become mainstream among Republicans, particularly those who supported former president Trump. The formulation of antagonism toward immigrants as a party ideology is very dangerous in American politics. As we saw during Trump’s presidency, it can lead to brutal public policies, such as mass family separations and indefinite detention under inhumane conditions, as well as an increase in hate crimes and violence against perceived immigrants. Responsible Americans have a lot of work to do to combat the spread of this virulent and dangerous ideology in American society.”
Religion and Antisemitism
Finally, the poll also surveyed respondents’ views on Christian nationalism and antisemitism.
“Despite the fact that the Founding Fathers were explicit about separating church and state, half of the Americans (50%) in our poll said that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation,” La Raja says. “Perhaps more surprisingly, close to 40% believe that America ‘should always be a Christian nation.’ I think Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Franklin – who all kept religion at arms-length – would be surprised to look at these poll numbers.”
“Democrats and Republicans diverge starkly on whether the United States is and should be a fundamentally white and Christian nation,” Theodoridis says. “What’s particularly troubling is that sizable majorities of Republicans subscribing to central tenets of both Great Replacement Theory and Christian Nationalism. That these racist, nativist and discriminatory takes are not fringe beliefs among the Republican rank-and-file is undoubtedly connected to the willingness of many GOP politicians to exploit baser impulses in pursuit of votes rather than appealing to, in Lincoln's words, the ‘better angels of our nature.’”
Regarding the nation’s views on Jews, La Raja says, “What is striking to me is that one-fifth (20%) of Americans believe it is okay for opponents of Israel’s policies to boycott Jewish-American businesses in their communities, making no distinction between a foreign government and their fellow citizens. Looking toward the future, perhaps of greater concern is that these sentiments are felt somewhat more strongly by young people. Thirty-five percent of Americans age 18-29 feel this way, and this same youth cohort is also more likely to say Jews are more loyal to Israel than to America.”
This University of Massachusetts Amherst Poll of 1,133 respondents nationwide was conducted by YouGov May 31-June 8, 2023. YouGov interviewed 1,298 respondents, including 1,165 main sample respondents, and an oversample of 133 African Americans. The main sample was matched down to a set of 1,000, and then combined with the oversample to form a final dataset of 1,133 respondents. The main sample was matched to a sampling frame on gender, age, race and education. The sampling frame is a politically representative “modeled frame” of U.S. adults, based upon the American Community Survey (ACS) public use microdata file, public voter file records, the 2020 Current Population Survey (CPS) Voting and Registration supplements, the 2020 National Election Pool (NEP) exit poll and the 2020 CES surveys, including demographics and 2020 presidential vote.
The matched main sample and the unmatched oversample were then weighted to their respective frame using propensity scores. The frame used for the oversample is similar to the previously described frame from the main sample, with the main difference being that it includes only African Americans. The matched cases and the frame were combined, and a logistic regression was estimated for inclusion in the frame. Both propensity score functions included age, gender, race/ethnicity, education, and region. The propensity scores were grouped into deciles of the estimated propensity score in the frame, and post-stratified according to these deciles.
The weights for the main sample were then post-stratified on 2020 Presidential vote choice, followed by a four-way stratification of gender, age (4-categories), race (4-categories) and education (4-categories). Meanwhile, the weights for the oversample were post-stratified on 2020 Presidential vote choice, a three-way stratification between gender, age (4-categories) and education (4-categories), and finally an individual stratification on region.
Then, the matched and weighted main sample and oversample datasets were combined into one. From there, the proportion of African Americans was weighted down to produce the final combined weight. After that, a subset of this combined dataset was taken so that only observations involving African Americans remained. This African American subset of the combined dataset was weighted to the same frame as the oversample using propensity scores. The unmatched cases and the frame were combined, and a logistic regression was estimated for inclusion in the frame. The propensity score function included age, gender, race/ethnicity, education and region. The propensity scores were grouped into deciles of the estimated propensity score in the frame, and post-stratified according to these deciles. Finally, the weights were then post-stratified on 2020 Presidential vote choice, followed by the same three-way stratification mentioned earlier, in order to produce the final African American weight.
The margin of error within this poll is 3.4%.
Topline results and crosstabs for the poll can be found at www.umass.edu/poll