The public perception that race relations have not improved during the course of Barack Obama’s presidency appears to be on the rise. Some data indicate, in fact, that the Obama-era has seen racial tensions worsen.
According to one survey, not only have race relations in America worsened since 2009 when they improved greatly in the immediate wake of the election of the nation’s first African-American president, an eventuality which was to be expected, they are generally worse than in 2007 when George W. Bush (a man who we were told by figures of influence “doesn’t care about black people”) occupied the Oval Office.
The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake noted that a recent Pew Research Center poll indicates that faith among African-Americans in law enforcement to act fairly has plummeted. In 2007, only 31 percent of black respondents had “very little” faith in local police. Today, 46 percent said the same.
The survey also shows that 64 percent of African-Americans believe blacks and whites “get along very well” or “pretty well” today. In 2007, that figure was 69 percent rising to 76 percent in 2009. Pew’s latest results represent a 12 point shift backwards.
Much of these findings may be perception resulting from what feels like an intensive focus on race relations in the media. A New York Times-CBS News poll released last week showed that 9 in 10 Americans believe race relations have not improved under Obama. 52 percent believe they have roughly stayed the same while 35 percent said they have gotten worse.
More interestingly, 40 percent of white respondents believe race relations have regressed under Obama while only 21 percent of African-American respondents said the same.
Adding to the suspicion that the press is partially responsible for the perception that race relations are on the decline, 78 percent of respondents in the Times-CBS poll said race relations in their own communities were generally good while just 47 percent said the same of the nation as a whole.
Blake notes, however, that the depressing Pew poll might be a bit misleading. A Gallup survey taken in 2013 showed that the number of African-Americans saying they had a negative view of race relations between blacks and whites plateaued in 2007 at 43 percent and has plummeted to just 33 percent today. Moreover, the total number of those who express a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of concern in race relations has generally trended in a positive direction since 2001.
In the new Pew poll in particular, the sample size for African Americans is small — only about 150 people — so it’s tough to draw too many hard and fast conclusions. But the 12-point shifts on blacks’ feelings about their relationships with police and whites are outside the margin of error.
That doesn’t mean they are necessarily huge shifts — we’ll have to await more data — but this poll suggests Ferguson might be hurting the climate of race relations in the United States.
That is not shocking, considering how this story has dominated the news media. It is just as possible that posterity could view the unrest in Ferguson as just one of many stories of racial tension which do not inhibit racial progress.
In fact, the grand trajectory of race relations over generations (Gallup has been polling on the subject since 1963) is not only trending in a positive direction but moving that way at a staggering pace.
Comity between the races in the United States moves in fits and starts, and progress is occasionally impeded by national events that exacerbate racial tensions. In 1995, in the wake of the trial of O.J. Simpson, racial progress appeared to be heading in reverse. Just 32 percent of Americans said civil rights for blacks had “greatly improved” while 51 percent said they had only improved “somewhat.” By 2011, however, 50 percent of Americans agreed African-American civil rights had “greatly improved” while another 39 percent appended the qualifier “somewhat” to that level of improvement.
Prior to the 2008 financial crisis, which arrested economic progress, the wealth and income gaps between blacks and whites were closing every year. The 2010 census revealed that African-Americans were more likely than any other group to receive some college education, though they were not the demographic most likely to graduate from an institution of higher learning.
Racial progress does not move in a constant direction in this country, and that improvement is often stunted by events. But the historical trajectory is, in general, consistently positive. The Obama presidency and the media’s fixation with racial tension during it represent one of history’s obstacles in the path toward progress. If the lessons of history are to be believed, this period in American history is more of a speed bump than a blockade along the road to equality.