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'Very anxious': Is America scared of diversity?

A new NBC News/Esquire poll shows that a majority of Americans are now in the political center. NBC News political director Chuck Todd discusses the findings with Matt Lauer.

“Diversity” is on the rise in America and people are “very anxious” about it, according to a sweeping new Esquire-NBC News survey.

The large-scale, bipartisan study — co-created by leading Republican and Democratic pollsters — mapped “the new American center,” as well as the ideological wings, and the data are a rich, complex portrait of the issues that unite voters today, regardless of party or ideology. As a guide to the winning political messages of the future, says Republican pollster Robert Blizzard, who helped produce the results, the work is nothing short of “a bible.”

But at a glance the results may concern people, especially immigrants, minorities and people of color. 

A third of the center is worried about how “increasing diversity” in America will affect the country’s future, with almost one in five saying diversity makes them “very anxious” — and a super-majority (65 percent) reporting that diversity inspires in them no sense of hope in the future, or at least no sense stronger than the anxiety they reported here.

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At the same time, while most people of the center support laws that protect minorities in the workplace, the center seems to think that these laws have gone too far: Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) believe that in respecting the rights of minorities, “we’ve limited the rights of a majority of Americans.”

And if the center were in power, it would favor ending affirmative action in hiring decisions and college admissions (57 percent) and requiring all voters to show photo-ID (58 percent), a move which disproportionately locks out minority voters. Likewise most of the center (54 percent) is against a path to citizenship for people who came to this country illegally — and less than a third (32 percent) support such a path as part of any bipartisan immigration reform.

The overwhelmingly white complexion of the center (78 percent) may cast these positions in an unflattering light, especially when a plurality (40 percent) is worried that “racial tensions” will turn violent in the near future. But while the center may seem unnervingly nativist and almost openly hostile to people of color, say the pollsters, these data points don’t tell the whole story. 

“Keep in mind,” said Blizzard, “the center voted for Obama by a decent margin in 2012.” 

When asked which public figure they trust the most, more people in the center picked Obama (9 percent) and Oprah Winfrey (6 percent), making them America’s most relied-upon public figures by a long shot. And a degree of pragmatism may be at work: 64 percent of the center say racial discrimination is on the wane and our laws should be modernized to reflect this happy change. 

Explore Esquire magazine's coverage of the exclusive survey.  

“What’s really coming through here,” said Democratic pollster Daniel Franklin, who helped conduct the survey, “is that the center is focused on their own personal finances, and with their anxious feelings about the national economy, they just want to make sure everyone is treated fairly when it comes to the economy.”

Overall, the results suggest that for most Americans, class now trumps race as the defining obstacle of upward mobility, a sentiment that’s strongly reflected in other studies. The income and education gap between blacks and whites has narrowed in recent years while the same gaps have grown into chasms between those born-rich and born-poor, regardless of color or country of origin.

The center seems to feel this opportunity gap acutely, with only 5 percent of the new majority strongly agreeing with the idea that America remains a land of opportunity for all — and almost a third (31 percent) doubting the statement that everyone has a chance to work themselves into the middle class.

Far from nativist or racist, in other words, the center seems keen to fix America’s mobility problem, restoring unfettered access to opportunity, and protecting the American dream for all.

Even if “diversity,” in the meantime, makes them nervous. 

The survey of 2,410 registered voters was conducted from August 5-11, 2013, using cutting-edge polling and analytical techniques, by Benenson Strategy Group (headed by Joel Benenson, lead pollster for Obama in ‘08 and '12) and Neil Newhouse of Public Opinion Strategies (the lead pollster for Romney '12.)


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