Perceptions of Muslims in the United States: a Review


By Mohamed Younis

DECEMBER 11, 2015

The terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, has brought the ongoing conversation about Muslim Americans, identity and extremism back onto the national stage. Over the past several years, Gallup has conducted a number of studies on perceptions of Muslims and Islam among the American public. Gallup has also studied the Muslim-American community itself in comparison to other religious groups in the U.S., most recently using 2015 Gallup Daily tracking data.

On Terrorism:

In the wake of the San Bernardino attack, an old debate about the so-called responsibility of Muslims to condemn acts of terror has gained steam. U.S. faith groups have historically been divided on whether Muslim Americans are more obligated to speak out against terrorism than other groups, with Muslims themselves also divided on the issue. Yet when it comes to their own views, Muslim Americans are the most likely of all religious groups to disavow military as well as individual or group attacks against civilians, with large majorities saying these are never justified.

On Prejudice:

Four in 10 Americans (43%) in previous Gallup surveys have self-reported harboring some degree of prejudice toward Muslims. Prejudice toward Muslims was higher than self-reported prejudice toward any of the various religious groups tested. Additionally, nearly half (or more) of respondents from all religious groups agree with the statement that “most Americans are prejudiced toward Muslim Americans.” Muslims are also the most likely group among religious groups in the U.S. to report having personally experienced racial or religious discrimination.

On Loyalty to the U.S.:

While the debate about Muslim Americans’ loyalty and role in countering extremism may highlight some of the public mistrust regarding Muslim Americans, nearly half (or more) of all religious groups in the U.S. recognize that Muslims do face considerable prejudice, and a majority of all groups say Muslims are also loyal to the U.S.

On Faith:

Gallup’s research has shown that Muslim Americans identify equally with their faith and country.

On al Qaeda:

Additionally, a majority of all religious groups in the U.S. disagree with the statement that “Muslims living in this country are sympathetic to al Qaeda.” Other than Muslims (92%), Americans with no religious affiliation (75%) and Jews (70%) are most likely to disagree with the statement that Muslim Americans harbor sympathies for al Qaeda.

On Confidence in U.S. Institutions:

Interestingly, Americans who think their Muslim peers are loyal to the U.S. are more likely than those who question this loyalty to have confidence in a number of major U.S. institutions such as the judicial system (63% vs. 41%), the honesty of elections (49% vs. 27%), the media (29% vs. 14%), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (73% vs. 61%) and the local police (82% vs. 75%).

This apparent deficit of confidence in national institutions among those who say Muslim Americans are not loyal to the U.S. is particularly interesting considering the current political discourse. In fact, government incompetence has been a major campaign theme of candidates, such as Donald Trump and Ben Carson, who have been most vocal on questioning the loyalty of Muslims and the compatibility of being a Muslim and a patriotic American. Statements implying that Muslims must reject their faith to run for president or should be treated with broad-brush suspicion in the country’s immigration process have often come from campaigns whose major themes include a focus on distrust of government as well as government incompetence. Donald Trump’s suggestion on banning all Muslim entry to the U.S. is presented based on the reasoning that government has failed at executing a more thorough and security-focused immigration process.

On the Possibility of a Muslim President:

Interestingly, 60% of Americans overall say they would vote for an otherwise well-qualified Muslim for president, statistically on par with the percentage who would vote for an atheist (58%) but lower than the percentage who would vote for a Catholic (93%), a Jew (91%), a Mormon (81%) or an evangelical Christian (73%).

On the Diversity of Muslims in the U.S.:

As the discourse in the U.S. continues to focus on Muslim identity, loyalty and Muslims’ role in countering extremism, Gallup data reveal a Muslim-American population that skews young and is racially diverse.

A detailed analysis of the profile of 943 Muslims interviewed as part of Gallup Daily tracking in 2015 shows that Americans who identify their religion as Muslim are the youngest and most racially diverse religious group in the U.S. Some 42% of Muslims are 18 to 29, compared with 17% of Protestants and 19% of Catholics who fall into the same age bracket. At the other end of the age spectrum, only 4% of Muslims are 65 and older, compared with 24% of Protestants and 20% of Catholics. Muslims are the only religious group to lack a majority race or ethnicity, with 36% self-identifying as non-Hispanic black, 27% as non-Hispanic white, 21% as Asian and 8% as Hispanic.

On Muslims’ Life Evaluations:

Muslim Americans’ life evaluations are not significantly higher or lower than those of other religious groups in the United States. Data from the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index for 2015 show that 56% of Muslims rate their lives highly enough to be classified as thriving and 4% suffering, roughly the same as several other religious groups, with the exception of Jews, both within the overall community and among young adults. Jews have the highest thriving rates of any religious group, with 64% thriving and 2% suffering. By way of comparison, 55% of all Americans are thriving and 4% are suffering.

On Political Leanings of Muslims:

The political leanings of Muslim Americans also paint an interesting picture. At 66%, the percentage of Muslims who identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party is the highest of any major religious group, ahead of the 60% of Jewish Americans who identify as or lean Democratic. This contrasts with 17% of Mormons, 43% of Catholics and 39% of Protestants who identify as or lean toward the Democrats. On the other hand, Muslim Americans have the lowest percentage of any religious group who identify as or lean Republican, at 16%. By comparison, 31% of Jews, 72% of Mormons, 41% of Catholics and 48% of Protestants identify as or lean Republican.

On Religiosity:

Muslims’ religiosity — based on self-reported religious service attendance (42% at least weekly) and importance of religion (79%) — is on par with Protestants’ religiosity (41% and 81%, respectively), but is less than that of Mormons (87% and 66%, respectively), the most religious group in the U.S.

In the coming days, stay tuned for new Gallup data on the American public’s perceptions of the threat of terrorism in light of the recent attacks.




In need of some new reading to spur your mind? Here is a great list of FREE BOOKS in  PDF form to educate oneself on race, gender, sexuality, class, and culture!

Please feel free to share this with anyone who you feel might benefit. Special thanks you to Tracie of Emory University.


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Thinking Outside the Boxes -The changing face of the U.S. Census.



Whenever Julie Dowling filled out forms for school while growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, she always had to pause when she reached the place where she was supposed to indicate her race.

Dowling is half Mexican and half Irish, but on forms she was asked to check only one box for her race. In Texas, the word “white” on forms was inevitably accompanied by “non-Hispanic” in parentheses next to it, so she knew that box was not for her. “Hispanic” was her only option.

This still made sense for Dowling because she identifies primarily as Mexican American. But for a friend of hers who moved to Texas from Florida, it was more complicated. This friend identified herself as both white and Cuban, but when she went into the DMV to obtain her new driver’s license, the person behind the desk looked at her Spanish last name and declared, “You can’t mark ‘white.’ You’re Hispanic.”

“It can be very confusing,” says Dowling, now a professor of Latina/Latino studies at the University of Illinois. “In Florida, my friend could be both white and Latino, but this was not possible in Texas because of the way racial categories were set up. There is a lot of regional variation in how race is understood and measured on forms.”

Across the country, she says, many Latinos and people of multiracial backgrounds do not always fit into the neat categories and boxes in surveys, including the United States Census that is conducted every 10 years.

With her Mexican/Irish heritage, Dowling says she has always been fascinated by how people identify themselves racially and ethnically, and she has done extensive research on racial identity for the past 15 years. Most recently, she was named one of 10 new members of the National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations. She will be serving a three-year term on this 32-member committee, which advises the U.S. Census Bureau.

Racial identification on the U.S. Census has a long and tangled history. (See sidebar to learn about quadroons and octoroons.) Now, she says, the Census Bureau is considering the latest in a long line of changes to the racial identification question—a change she endorses.

Ever since 1970, the U.S. Census long form has had two questions dealing with race and ethnicity. First, there is a question asking people if they are “of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin.” A separate question then asks respondents to identify their race, but “Latino/Hispanic” is not listed as an option, even though several Asian national origins are included, such as Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese.

According to Dowling, research conducted by the Census Bureau during the most recent 2010 census revealed that many Latinos felt singled out by having their own separate question on the census—even though the question had been added decades ago to ensure that Latinos were counted.

Ironically, while some Latinos felt stigmatized, the research also showed that some European Americans thought the separate question gave Latinos preferential treatment. People of European descent had nowhere on the form where they could indicate their ethnic heritage, be it Irish, Scottish, Polish, or German.


Julie Dowling, a professor of Latina/Latino studies, says many Latinos and people of multiracial backgrounds do not always fit into the neat categories and boxes in surveys, including the United States Census that is conducted every 10 years.

Research also showed that the census form’s question on race resulted in skewed results for the percentage of Latinos identifying as white. Roughly 50 percent of Latinos identified as white, while most of the other half indicated “other race.” But when census workers followed up with a phone call, they found that many Latinos who identified as white did not really consider themselves white. Because “Latino/Hispanic” was not an option on the race question, they simply didn’t have any better category in which they fit.

Dowling found similar results in her own research described in her new book, Mexican Americans and the Question of Race.She studied Latinos in Texas, county by county, and she discovered that 80 to 90 percent of Latinos in the counties bordering Mexico identified as “white” on the census—even higher than the 50-percent figure nationally. She also found that there was a big difference between how Latinos identify themselves publicly and how they identify themselvesprivately.

When she interviewed respondents, she found that privately many Latinos did not really consider themselves white. But publicly, many of them identified as white as a defensive strategy in response to the racial profiling and discrimination they face. They were saying, “I’m on this side of the border. I’m an American citizen, and I want to be treated as a citizen. So for many, it was more of a desire to be accepted. It is also a result of Latinos just trying to fit themselves into a box in the absence of a Latino racial option.”

During the 2010 census, the Census Bureau tested out a new streamlined question that may better capture how Latinos identify, Dowling says. Experimental forms dropped the separate question for Latinos and offered only one question on race and ethnicity, breaking the categories into seven race or origin groups:

  • White
  • Black, African American, or Negro
  • Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin
  • American Indian or Alaska Native
  • Asian
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander
  • Other Race or Origin

The Census Bureau tested several formats, but the most popular one listed these seven categories, followed by a blank, in which people could indicate their specific ethnic group. For instance, they could write Mexican or Argentinian under Hispanic/Latino, Irish or German under white, or Mayan or Navajo under American Indian. Respondents were also told they can check more than one of these categories, so someone could check both white and Latino.

During the 2010 census, the new formats were tested with a half-million people. By adding “Hispanic/Latino” to the question on race, the percentage of Latinos identifying as white dropped from 50 percent to 9 to 16 percent (depending on the form). What’s more, follow-up phone calls showed that Latinos who identified themselves as white on the new forms really did identify themselves that way in their daily lives, so she says the data are more accurate.

Testing of the new forms will continue as the 2020 census approaches.

Meanwhile, Latino families such as Dowling’s continue to puzzle over forms. Her husband is Mexican American as well, and when their daughter was born in Illinois, the form for the birth certificate had no “Latino” or “other” option under race. The hospital staff said that Latinos go under “white” on the form. Dowling argued with them on this, but they refused to allow the question to be left blank. Something had to be marked, so they were forced to allow the hospital staff to identify them as “white.”

Dowling says that as federal forms change to more accurately reflect a person’s race or origin group, these changes will trickle down to affect forms at the state and local level—maybe even at hospitals.

The result?

“People will be counted in ways that are more meaningful,” she says.

Quadroons and Octoroons? The Changing Face of the U.S. Census

In 1890, the United States Census counted quadroons and octoroons.


Such terms have vanished into the dustbin of history, but “quadroon” means one-fourth African and “octoroon” means one-eighth African.

These long-forgotten categories are just two examples of how keeping track of race in America is a complicated, ever-evolving process. Counting the number of Latinos is also a good example of how difficult the task can be, says Julie Dowling, University of Illinois professor of Latina/Latino studies.

Under the question in which people are asked to identify their race, “Mexican” first appeared on the U.S. Census in 1930—the same decade when there was even a “Hindu” racial category. However, Mexicans protested the addition of the Mexican category because “they wanted to be recognized as white,” says Dowling. “They wanted to be accepted and have citizenship rights. This was a time where the best avenue for people to fit in was to claim whiteness.”

Many also feared that being identified as Mexican on the census would increase the chances that as new immigrants they would be deported. In the 1940s, census data were used to identify Japanese Americans and put them in internment camps during World War II.

After protests, the category “Mexican” was dropped from the census in 1940, so the Census counted Latinos as white for the next couple of decades. But in the 1960s and ’70s, things began to change once again. Mexican Americans and other groups now wanted to be counted so they could be included in federal programs that dealt with poverty and inequality. During this period, people also began to use the term “Hispanic” to cover all Latino groups, including Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, and more. Prior to the 1960s, Latino groups were viewed separately.

Meanwhile, the number of racial and ethnic categories on the census expanded decade by decade, but the Hispanic/Latino category was never added to the census question on race. Instead, a separate question was added to the long form in 1970, asking people if they are “of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin.”

But that too raised some problems, so the categories might be changing again.

Dowling points out that “some other race” is now the third largest racial group after white and black, and as the demographics shift, if the form does not change she says “other race” might just become the second-largest group on the 2020 survey.

“But we don’t live in and have never lived in a black/white/other world,” Dowling says. “There are lots of groups that deserve to be included. It’s about giving people more options, not less options, to identify themselves.”

By Doug Peterson
Winter 2015