In the national shouting match over who hates whom the most, a number of polls conducted since 2008 suggest that the racial divide has increased only slightly from where it was 20 years ago. However, the same polls reveal that most Americans hold a surprisingly dim view of racial harmony.
Roughly eight years ago, political commentators dared to broach the thorny question of skin color and whether America had at last begun to heal its divisions over race—and atone for its original sin of slavery—by electing its first Black president. The sad answer today from these and other such questions is a resounding “no.” Last summer, a New York Times/CBS News poll revealed that nearly six in 10 Americans—including heavy majorities of both Whites and Blacks—believe race relations are generally bad, and nearly four in 10 believe the situation has gotten much worse. A similar poll conducted by the two news organizations shortly after President Barack Obama took office saw that respondents believe that race relations were generally good.
Who’s to blame?
What happened? Who’s to blame for the retrenchment in social goodwill? Media experts contend that the traditional news gathering fronts and social media share some responsibility. These days it is not uncommon to see a story—particularly during TV “sweeps weeks”—about the most “racist city,” “racist state,” “racist song,” “racist food” even the most “racist” Disney character, all of which can help boost ratings. The “race card” is played outright in covering stories about so-called “micro-aggressions” on our college campuses (i.e. fraternities and sororities). At the workplace, affirmative action has been a lightning rod of controversy for 40 years. Additionally, the often deadly police confrontations with unarmed Black citizens, senseless acts of revenge against law enforcement, activists who are accused of fanning the flames of racial discontent, and politicians who bank on societal division in return for votes, all have had a hand in the downward trend in racial harmony.
The advance of social media—and the blurring of lines between the “old” and “new” methods of news dissemination—plays an increasingly large role in fashioning public opinion. In today’s non-stop celebrity culture, many African Americans contend there has been a “racial appropriation” of Black culture by White entertainers, when forming music or fashion tastes. From the age-old “White rip-off artists” in music to the phenomenon of the “Black butt” among the latest [White female] hip hop and social media sensations, the racial divide appears to closing because some say these practices demonstrate an apparent appreciation for Black culture yet at the same time an unacknowledged appropriation.
Next year’s six-episode series on TNT called “The Race Card” hosted by NBA Hall-of-Famer Charles Barkley is among the many august efforts to forge a responsible dialogue on the issue. Barkley this week said he wants to seek out varied viewpoints from today’s “cultural leaders” and “tastemakers” on the topic of race. Barkley said he will “…bust up the echo chamber mentality that so often has people retreating to corners of the like-minded.”
New York Times/CBS News poll
The New York Times/CBS News poll looked at how Blacks and Whites viewed race in their own communities, and the outlook isn’t exactly sunny. For instance, while only 37 percent of respondents said they thought race relations were generally good in America, more than twice that share—77 percent—thought race relations were good in their own communities. This number has not changed in about 30 years because, in most big cities, people of the same race have tended to live in separate enclaves no matter what the economic status (although this may be complicated by discrimiatory actions). Yet among these persons, only a one-third thought that most people were comfortable discussing race with someone of another race, but nearly three-quarters said they were primarily comfortable doing so with people who looked like them.
While almost half of those questioned in the poll said the Obama presidency has had no effect on bringing the races together, one-third said he has driven people further apart. Seventy-two percent of Blacks approved of how Obama handles race relations, compared to 40 percent of Whites.
In relation to law enforcement, racial schisms may go back 100 years. Today, about three-fourths of Blacks believe that the judicial system is biased against African Americans and that police were more likely to use deadly force against a Black person than a White person. Whites, who addressed the issue, numbered 44 percent who said the system was biased against Blacks. Because views on law enforcement are primarily informed by personal experience, about two-thirds of Black male motorists said they felt they had been stopped by the police in predominantly White neighborhoods because of their race, compared with 20 percent of White respondents driving through the inner city.
A look by Rasmussen Reports
Two years ago, the conservative-leaning Rasmussen Reports conducted a unique poll to determine if Blacks are more racist than Whites. The survey found that a larger minority of Americans, 37 percent, believe most African Americans are racist compared with the 15 percent of respondents who think most White Americans are racist. The numbers naturally fell along racial and partisan lines. As an example, 49 percent of conservatives consider most Blacks to be racist compared with 21 percent of liberals. Because many conservatives tend to hear any racial grievance as “playing the race card,” a big surprise in the poll was that a sizable number of Blacks, 31 percent, agreed with the 38 percent of Whites who think most Blacks are racist. That’s a “stereotype-shattering” result, pollsters admitted, suggesting that African Americans should do some “soul searching,” when it comes to bigotry.
The Rasmussen poll never actually defined “racist,” which may be the most abused and misused word in the English language. Years ago, director Spike Lee told Playboy magazine that “Black people can’t be racist” because, “while there is naturally prejudice, [Blacks] don’t have the power” to enforce sweeping institutional racism that often perpetuates social, economic and political inequality. Lee’s decades-old argument, however, was before African Americans began to achieve previously unheard of political power … from the U.S. Senate to the White House.
Pew Research Center results
Another famous polling organization, the Pew Research Center, set about this year to find out why Black and White adults remain worlds apart on views of race. They looked at the series of flashpoints around the country involving racial (and reverse racial) discrimination and revealed the usual diatribe that Blacks, far more than Whites, say Black people are treated unfairly across different realms of life. The poll found that while an overwhelming majority of Blacks (88 percent) said the country needs to continue making changes for Blacks to have equal rights with Whites, a remarkable 43 percent of Black respondents lamented that such changes will never occur. A much lower share of Whites (53 percent) believe the nation still has to do more for Blacks to achieve equal rights with Whites, with only 11 percent expressing doubt about any forthcoming changes.
The Pew findings were based on a national survey conducted from Feb. 29 through May 8, among 3,769 adults (1,799 Whites, 1,004 Blacks and 654 Latinos) with the survey centered primarily around the socio-economic divide between the races, and the treatment of Black people today in the U.S. More broadly, the survey found, Blacks and Whites offer different perspectives of the current state of race relations. White Americans are evenly divided, with 46 percent saying race relations are generally good, and 45 percent saying they’re generally bad. In a sharp contrast, Blacks—by nearly a two-to-one margin—said race relations are bad (61 percent) rather than good (34 percent). Blacks are about twice as likely as Whites to say that too little attention is paid to racial issues (58 percent vs. 27 percent).
If these findings ring true across the breadth of the racial divide, it may be important to focus on what the different racial and ethnic groups can agree on. Pew thought so as well, and found Whites agreeing that a discussion should begin on what the two groups have in common (57 percent), rather than what makes each group unique (26 percent). Among Blacks, similar shares say the focus should be on commonalties (45 percent) vs. differences (44 percent).
Apex of racial divide
President Obama, the son of a Black father and White mother, stands in the middle of the latest racial divide (quite literally). When asked about the impact he has had on race relations, a majority of Americans throughout most surveys taken since he took office give him give him credit for trying to make things better. In the Pew survey, 51 percent of Blacks said Obama has made great strides toward improving race relations, while 34 percent said he has come up woefully short. Few Blacks (5 percent) said he has made things worse. Among Whites, 28 percent said Obama has made progress toward inter-racial harmony, while 24 percent of White respondents said he has tried but failed to improve how Blacks and Whites feel about one another. A substantial share of Whites (32 percent) said he has made things worse.
The views of Blacks and Whites are significantly aligned when it comes to the impact of family instability (57 percent to 55 percent respectively) and its effect on Black progress. Both groups agreed primarily that there is a lack of “good role models” for Blacks (51 percent and 52 percent respectively) as a possible reason why many African Americans still struggle to get ahead. Blacks were more likely to say that a lack of motivation to work hard may be hindering their community; 43 percent of Black adults and 30 percent of Whites say low motivation among African Americans is a major reason Blacks have a harder time getting ahead than do Whites.
Let’s hear from the millennials
What do millennials think about the issue of race? MTV, the bastion of youthful expression and counterculture, took a look at the issue in a 2014 series called “Look Different” and found that, compared with previous generations, millennials tend to be more tolerant and diverse and profess a deeper commitment to equality and fairness. Ninety-one percent of respondents to the MTV survey “believe in equality” and profess that “everyone should be treated equally.” Likewise, 84 percent said their families taught them early to treat everyone the same—no matter what skin color—and 89 percent believe in social equality. Only 37 percent of respondents (30 percent of Whites and 46 percent of minorities) said they were reared in families that talk about race.
Millennials are the first generation to say that American society is “post racial,” with 72 percent of respondents asserting that their age group believes in equality more than older people (58 percent believe that racism will become less of an issue as they get older). Most millennials surveyed aspire to “colorblindness” and tended to be hostile to affirmative action (70 percent said racial preferences are unfair regardless of “historical inequalities”). There was a small difference between minority and White millennials (65 percent to 72 percent respectively) regarding the benefits of affirmative action; however MTV did not disaggregate “people of color” by race and ethnicity. Survey organizers felt there was a possibility that Black millennials may be more friendly to affirmative action than their Latino or Asian peers.
Millennials have the same tough time talking about race as do their elders. Although 73 percent believe that we should talk “more openly” about racial bias, only 20 percent say they are comfortable doing so. And for all their unity on tolerance and equality, White and minority millennials have divergent views on the status of race as an operative measure of social advancement. Forty-one percent of White millennials say that the government “pays too much attention” to the problems of racial minority groups, while 65 percent of minorities say that Whites have “more opportunities.” Further, 48 percent of White millennials said discrimination against their community in terms of education, housing and employment is just as big a problem as similar bias against people of color.