How good are race relations in the United States these days? That’s probably a bit on the misleading side. We should probably just switch that up and ask, precisely how bad are race relations now?
NBC News has been running a poll on this question for decades now and the news this autumn is fairly dismal. The latest edition of the survey shows that nearly three quarters of the nation sees current trends in racial tension and unrest adding up to a situation which is either “fairly bad” or “very bad.” But we should stop and take a peek at how they’re phrasing the results. (NBC News)
Seven-in-10 Americans view race relations in the United States as poor — nearly matching the record high of mid-2016, according to a new poll from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal.
In the wake of a white nationalist demonstration in Charlottesville, Va., in August that ended in the death of a peaceful protester, 28 percent of the public — including 24 percent of whites and fully 40 percent of African Americans — say that race relations are “very bad,” with another 42 percent of all respondents calling them “fairly” bad.
Just 26 percent of Americans overall call race relations “very” or “fairly” good.
So far so good. There’s nothing factually inaccurate here. There were demonstrations in Charlottesville where a protester was killed and the poll was taken after that. But that leaves one with the impression that the Trump era has produced this nearly historic low in comity between the races. Of course, the word “nearly” is critical in that sentence. You need to scroll down a bit for NBC to inform you that the admittedly terrible number of 70% in the “relations are bad” camp is actually down a few ticks from the 74% they measured in July of last year. And you’ll recall that someone else was in the oval office then.
Even more to the point, the graphic they toss up requires a bit of parsing to see the whole story. A bit further on in the NBC News article, they bemoan how bad things are now compared to when Barack Obama was elected. (Emphasis added)
The bleak outlook is a far cry from the optimism about race relations expressed after President Barack Obama’s election as the nation’s first black president. Shortly before Obama’s inauguration in 2009, a record 77 percent of Americans offered a positive assessment of race relations, while just 21 percent disagreed.
Again… factually correct, but check out the somewhat oddly distorted timeline in the NBC News graphic.
So the low mark for bad relations (which is actually the most optimistic view, shown by the black line) comes in January of 2009, just as Obama was being sworn in. The graph seems to meander along for quite a while with that happy number remaining relatively stable until near the end of the X axis when it suddenly skyrockets. But as I alluded to above, look at the dates on the X axis. The next two samples where relations are still viewed very positively are taken in September of 2009 (the same year) and January of 2010, only four months later. By the time a fourth tick is added for 2011 (still early in Obama’s first term) the “total bad” figure has already crept back up to 26%.
At that point the poor race relations figure explodes, but the graph spends the same amount of space (four samples) going from 2011 to 2016 as they did to get from 2009 to 2011. And not for nothing, but that’s the entire Obama presidency. While 2009 may have been the best year, that “total bad” figure had been riding near or below 40% going back a couple of decades with the exception of a brief spike in 95 under Bill Clinton. The reality is that the country’s view of race relations began soaring toward previously unseen highs after Barack Obama had been in office for barely two years and has been breaking records ever since.
Will those dismal figures continue to decrease under Trump or was this just a blip in the data stream? Too soon to say. But if you think the current state of race relations in America is awful (and these numbers clearly support that idea) then you’d better consider carefully before you go dumping the entire problem at Donald Trump’s doorstep.