News & Ideas  -  Race and Political Trust in the United States


As part of the Kettering Foundation’s ongoing research, our staff and allied organizations gather for monthly Dayton Days research sessions to reflect on the ideas guiding our work and to share new insights. Conceptual thinkers from outside the foundation join us to talk about their work and provoke our thinking.

In May 2022, we invited Shayla C. Nunnally, professor and head of the Department of Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee, to join us. We asked, what challenges related to social and political mistrust might we expect when attempting to engage a diverse citizenry in collective action and public deliberation?

Trust is a political resource and the glue of democracy. More specifically, trust is a belief about a person, institution, or context that stems from an assessment about who or what can deliver an outcome with the least harm and greatest benefit to the trustor. Through trust in others, people collaborate, and political and communal work is done. Political trust is trust in actors, institutions, and processes to perform and function properly to the ultimate effect of making democracy work. Over the past five decades, especially since the Watergate scandal, general trends indicate a decline in political trust among all US citizens. This trend, measured by Pew Research Center and Gallup, stands in contrast to earlier years, beginning in 1958, when Americans first reported that they trusted their government. With the exception of certain years where there have been increases in trust (the latter 1980s, mid-1990s, and immediately post-9/11), political scientists question why this decline has been occurring. The interconnections of race and politics may be an important culprit. Disentangling how these interconnections factor into political trust provides an important research agenda for social scientists.

For decades, political scientists have questioned the reason behind the notable, racial differences in political trust levels. Black Americans generally have the least political trust of all Americans, although interspersed with Latinx Americans’ distrust as well. Both Black Americans and Latinx Americans have had less political trust compared to White Americans. Only during the Obama administration and Biden administration has Black Americans’ and Latinx Americans’ political trust outpaced the trust that White Americans held for the US government. During these same administrations, White Americans’ political trust waned and then appeared to increase during the Trump administration. Recent surveys indicate that Americans trust their government more when the US president shares the same political party as their own. Thus, Republicans trust Republican presidents more than presidents of the opposite political party, and Democrats trust Democrats over Republicans. It cannot be overlooked that, as noted by the Pew Research Center, the current American political party system has divided along racial lines, with non-Whites belonging largely to the Democratic Party and White Americans mostly belonging to the Republican Party and increasingly becoming more Republican and in varying degrees, depending on one’s gender (men), class (working-class), religious affiliation (evangelicals), and level of education (non-college).1

Since the 1960s, political scientists have been perplexed by the continual racial disparities in trust between Black and White Americans. Political scientists’ theoretical explanations for these differences focus on Black Americans’ experiences with racial discrimination. With a history of de facto racial discrimination, the relationship between Black Americans and the American government has been tainted by inequality and injustices. Black Americans have been noted to trust in racial groups differently, with more distrust being held for White Americans in the political context. These varying degrees of trust seem to have broad implications for our understanding of the historic Black-White dichotomy. The intricacies of Black Americans’ trust in other racial groups, especially in political or social contexts, provide a great calling for scientists to understand how people of different racial backgrounds trust in a racialized other-person.

The significance of race, party politics, and political trust is a major consideration for American politics, not just now but also over time. We should consider the effects of racial “shocks” to the American political system, such that the status quo of racial order and equilibrium become disrupted and cause racial disorder.2 Racial group interests, whether political or economic, are not just interconnected for Black Americans via Black-linked fate, or attitudes linking Black Americans to political interests that are perceived as being best for the larger, Black racial group.3 Because of the functioning of the Black-White dichotomy, just as there are Black group interests, there are also White group interests and attitude linkages represented by a “White-linked fate.”4 The societal, construction of race, and hence the racial hierarchy, often places racial groups’ interests at odds with one another, especially with respect to White supremacy. Similarly, as many Black Americans had an affinity with President Obama, as the nation’s first Black American president, many White Americans have an affinity with President Trump. However, these attitudes have different symbolic meanings for the representation of each racial group’s interests.

The imbalance of trust between political parties’ agendas and the presidents that serve as party leaders seems to affect how people perceive whether their racial group interests are best represented in government. President Biden, as a Democratic president, has received more trust among White Americans than President Obama. However, White Americans’ trust in the government increased during the Trump administration. In essence, there is “racialization by association” in the connection of political leaders with their constituents. Thus, we must continue to examine the spillover effects of trust in the attitudes about the executive branch and other political institutions during presidential administrations. Compared to presidents as far back as 1972, there is a notable decline in trust from President G. W. Bush’s administration to President Obama’s, which begs greater attention to the shifts and differences in political trust among Black and White Americans and other racial and ethnic groups.

Politicians must navigate a racialized trust dilemma in their relations with different racial groups to be perceived as trustable in representing those racial groups’ interests. Scholars note that politicians also face an inclusionary dilemma whereby they must determine the barriers of advocating for Black political interests.4 To analyze these trust and representation dilemmas over time, social scientists should begin with 19th century Reconstruction, when non-Whites (Black Americans in particular) first entered the American polity as participating citizens. During this time, the eventual fallout over political leadership, trust, and representation within and between political parties (and among White Americans as coalition partners with new Black voters) involved the question of What to do with the Negro? The Negro Problem, as it was called (amid other questions related to non-White groups), consolidated the Southern states and their political interests. This division, based upon White supremacy and the cloak of state rights also empowered the institutionalization of Jim Crow.

The perception that non-White groups are interested in redistributive politics to the detriment of White Americans is integral to the politics of race. This is not just about racial group threat, it is also about the perceptions of (dis)possession through power, property, or presence in social and political spaces. Hence, White Americans (as the majority group in population size) may perceive that a “reordering” of society would be politically strategic for non-White Americans’ political interests, despite any claims for equality and justice, because it may be perceived as racial redistribution. The uncertainty about the aims of these political interests and actions produces racialized political trust and racial trust in politics.

In 1903, W. E. B Du Bois illuminated “the problem of the color-line” in his book The Souls of Black Folk. He discussed the classic 20th century problem of the fissure forming between White and non-White Americans as they navigated interrelationships across the color line. We must analyze further and foremost the politics of this fissure and its implications for the history and evolution of American politics. The 1619 Project (Nikole Hannah-Jones and the New York Times) is a contemporary initiative that highlights the significance of slavery in American history and its precedence in this nation. Even predating the nation’s official founding, slavery has defined the political and economic interests for which groups continue to navigate and interrelate over four centuries later. This history begs further research attention be given to race and American political development and, especially, the examination of the dynamism of race, trust, and politics over time and in different spaces.


  1. Pew Research Center, A Deep Dive Into Party Affiliation (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, April 7, 2015).
  2. King, Desmond S. and Rogers M. Smith, “Racial Orders in American Political Development,” in Race and American Political Development, eds., Joseph Lowndes, Julie Novkov, and Dorian Warren (New York: Routledge, 2008), 80-105.
  3. Dawson, Michael C., Behind the Mule: Race and Class in African-American Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).
  4. Berry, Justin A., David Ebner, and Michelle Cornelius, White Identity Politics, Linked Fate, and Political Participation. Politics, Groups, and Identities 9 (3): 519-537.
  5. Todd Shaw, Robert A. Brown, and Joseph P. McCormick, eds., After Obama: African American Politics in a Post-Obama Era (New York: New York University Press, 2021).