Only a handful of terminal optimists could have been surprised by the conclusion in the headline above. It’s surely no shock to learn that a large majority of the public believes race relations have reached their lowest point in over two decades.
According to a CBS News poll, 61 percent see race relations as “bad” as opposed to the 34 percent who continue to see them as good. This poll has not seen race relations reach this point since May of 1992, just weeks after the city of Los Angeles erupted in violence following the acquittal of three of the four police officers filmed beating Rodney King. Then, 68 percent of respondents said race relations were “bad” and just one-quarter believed that they were progressing in a positive direction.
“For the first time since 1997, majorities of both whites and blacks think race relations in the U.S. are bad,” CBS News reported. “Opinions among white Americans have grown sharply more negative in this poll, and are the reverse of what they were earlier this year. Sixty-two percent of whites now say race relations are bad, compared to just 35 percent in February.”
Historically, whites tend to be more optimistic about the state of race relations in public opinion surveys. It is atypical and a source of concern to learn that more whites than African-Americans believe race relations are moving in the wrong direction.
There is no question that racial comity in the United States has backslid over the course of the Obama presidency. Even after the president’s scorched earth reelection campaign in 2012, the vast majority of the public believed race relations were still improving. Those that maintained that opinion were displaying a remarkably resilient sense of optimism, particularly considering that the president and his allies did everything in their powers to inflame racial tensions.
Both before and after that year, the nation’s attorney general spent much of his free time accusing the president’s critics of harboring racial antipathy toward blacks. Eric Holder has devoted his tenure to denouncing “unprecedented, unwarranted, ugly, and divisive” anti-Obama rhetoric from Republicans before audiences assembled at Al Sharpton’s tax-evading charity, the National Action Network. “You know, people talking about taking their country back. … There’s a certain racial component to this for some people,” Holder told ABC News. “I don’t think this is the thing that is a main driver, but for some there’s a racial animus.” Surely, he didn’t think that was a racial statement when Hillary Clinton was making it.
But worst of all, Holder lent legitimacy to the pathological obsession MSNBC hosts and other liberals had with detecting subtle racism undetectable to all but the most skilled carnival barker. In 2012, words like “apartment,” “Chicago,” “golf,” “Monday,” “work ethic,” “food stamp,” and “Constitution” were determined to be “dog whistles” designed to activate racist sleeper cells. Few of the left’s racial inquisitors thought much about the fact that they could detect and decode these secret messages better than their supposedly intended recipients. Don’t think too much about that, lest you draw a deeply Problematic conclusion.
2012 was a year in which the president inflamed tensions around the death of a Florida teen that was presumed to be a racially-inspired homicide. Only a year later was the victim of that teen’s assault vindicated by a criminal jury. It was a year when the Supreme Court was determined to be a willing participant in a racial conspiracy after they ruled that a 47-year-old law was hopelessly dated and violated the principles of federalism.
The spark having been intentionally set, the blaze of racial resentment has conflagrated beyond anyone’s control ever since. Despite the media’s support for a guilty verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder case and their utter failure to prepare their audiences for the alternative outcome, that event was not met with violence by the African-American community. It required substantial agitating by a professional class of provocateurs to create the conditions that finally led to violence in America’s streets.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that we’ve been here before. Gallup has polling data going back to 1963, and that data reveals that race relations progress in fits and starts. When racial controversies erupt, tensions spike and progress is hard to see. But those moments rarely last very long. They simply cannot. The fundamental conditions guiding the nation ever closer toward racial parity are generally moving in the right direction.
I noted on this past Martin Luther King Jr. Day that, while it is tempting to lament the state of race relations, a cursory review of the empirical conditions should inspire hope in anyone truly interested in racial harmony.
While Americans’ perceptions are subject to the whims of the news cycle, tangible and concrete examples of racial progress are more immutable. Outcomes are also improving for African-Americans. The 2010 census found that, while they are less likely to receive a degree than other groups, blacks were more likely than any other demographic to receive some college education. Though economic disparity among the races is frustratingly persistent, a study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that metrics associated with “well-being” show that racial gaps are closing.
“In the early 1970s data revealed much lower levels of subjective well-being among blacks relative to whites. Investigating various measures of well-being, we find that the well-being of blacks has increased both absolutely and relative to that of whites,” the study’s abstract summary read. “While a racial gap in well-being remains, two-fifths of the gap has closed and these gains have occurred despite little progress in closing other racial gaps such as those in income, employment, and education.”
Despite the best efforts of a class of professional agitators, racial progress is quantifiable. That is not to say that racism is not an issue, racial progress is never stifled by its adversaries, or that racial disparities have entirely disappeared or perhaps ever will. There are persistent inequalities of outcomes among the races that should anger every American, and many of them are perpetuated by a cast of well-meaning public servants in Washington. Perhaps perfect racial equality and harmony is a utopian goal that will never be achieved. But those who contend that race relations have not improved with historically atypical alacrity lack the evidence to support this contention.
Two steps forward, one step back. This has been the history of racial progress in America, and we are presently taking that step back. But progress is a constant, and America’s imperfect Union grows stronger with each successive generation. No matter what the agitators and base opportunists might hope, they cannot shatter the bedrock foundation that binds this nation together; the desire to see a better life for one’s children. That constant keeps us all moving forward, uncomfortably at times, together.