Seven years ago, in the afterglow of a stirring election night in Chicago, commentators dared ask whether the United States had finally begun to heal its divisions over race and atone for the original sin of slavery by electing its first black president. It has not. Not even close.
A new New York Times/CBS News poll reveals that nearly 6 in 10 Americans, including heavy majorities of both whites and blacks, think race relations are generally bad and that nearly 4 in 10 think the situation is getting worse. By comparison, two-thirds of Americans surveyed shortly after President Barack Obama took office said they believed race relations were generally good.
The swings in attitude have been particularly striking among African-Americans. During Obama’s 2008 campaign, nearly 60 percent of blacks said race relations were generally bad, but that number was cut in half shortly after he won. It has now soared to 68 percent, the highest level of discontent among blacks during the Obama years and close to the numbers recorded in the aftermath of the riots that followed the 1992 acquittal of Los Angeles police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King.
Only a fifth of those surveyed said they thought race relations were improving, while about 40 percent of both blacks and whites said they were staying essentially the same.
Respondents tended to have much sunnier views of race relations in their own communities.
For instance, while only 37 percent said they thought race relations were generally good in the United States, more than twice that share — 77 percent — thought they were good in their communities, a number that has changed little over the past 20 years. Similarly, only a third thought that most people were comfortable discussing race with someone of another race, but nearly three-quarters said they were comfortable doing so themselves.
The nationwide telephone poll of 1,205 people, which focused on racial concerns, was conducted from July 14-19, at the midpoint of a year that has seen as much race-related strife and violence as perhaps any since the desegregation battles of the 1960s. It came one month after the massacre in Charleston, S.C., of nine black worshippers at Emanuel AME Church apparently by a white supremacist, and after a yearlong series of shootings and harassment of blacks by white police officers that were captured by smartphone cameras.
The Charleston shootings, which took place during a Bible study on June 17, generated a national outpouring of outrage and grief. The suspect’s embrace of the Confederate battle flag in Internet photographs prompted South Carolina’s Republican governor, Nikki R. Haley, and its Republican-controlled legislature to order the flag’s removal from the grounds of the State House in Columbia.
But despite the perception that the shootings inspired a moment of empathy and reconciliation, the poll suggests that attitudes toward the flag remain deeply divided between whites and blacks, and not just in the South.
When asked how they regarded the battle flag, 57 percent of whites said they considered it mostly an emblem of Southern pride, while 68 percent of blacks said they saw it more as a symbol of racism. The view that the flag represents heritage more than bigotry was shared by 65 percent of white Southerners, including three-fourths of white Southern men.
About 4 in 10 whites — and 1 in 10 blacks — said they disapproved of the decision to lower the flag in Columbia, while 52 percent of whites and 81 percent of blacks favored it. Nearly half of white Southerners disagreed with the decision. Four in 10 blacks said they would be less likely to shop with a retailer who sold Confederate flags and merchandise, but only 17 percent of whites said so.
“The Confederate flag is a part of history that should not just be thrown out the door,” said Mary Nordtome, 66, a white retired rancher from Fort Sumner, N.M., in a follow-up interview. “It really hurts me that we have to be so politically correct in everything.” She added, “Hate groups have distorted what the Confederate flag means and the history we should not forget.”
Mindy Zhu, a 19-year-old college student from New York who is Asian, said the crusade against the Confederate flag, regardless of its meaning, posed a threat to free speech. “As soon as you start taking away a symbol for something, then you start taking away other people’s freedom,” she said.
In the aftermath of the Charleston shootings, many Americans were deeply moved when relatives of five of the victims told the suspect in the killings, Dylann Roof, at a court hearing that their faith directed them to forgive him. The poll found that about half of those surveyed, including 49 percent of whites and 41 percent of blacks, could not have brought themselves to do the same.
Obama delivered perhaps his most pointed reflection on race in late June when he eulogized the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, the pastor of Emanuel AME. “For too long,” he said, “we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present.”
But Obama has largely succeeded in persuading the country that, as he asserted in 2012, he is “not the president of black America” but rather “the president of the United States of America.” Two-thirds of those surveyed said his administration’s policies treated whites and blacks the same. Yet in 2010, 83 percent of Americans said the administration did not favor one race over the other.
Still, almost half of those questioned said the Obama presidency had had no effect on bringing the races together, while about a third said it had driven them further apart. Only 15 percent said race relations had improved. Seventy-two percent of blacks said they approved of the way Obama is handling race relations, compared with 40 percent of whites.
The president won 95 percent of the black vote and 43 percent of the white vote in 2008, according to exit polling, and 93 percent of the black vote and 39 percent of the white vote in his re-election. His job approval ratings also demonstrate a deep racial divide.
The divide, seen in the answers to virtually every question in the poll, was stark when respondents were asked whether they thought most Americans had judged Obama more harshly because of his race. Eighty percent of blacks said yes, while only 37 percent of whites agreed.
“I’m not surprised it’s gotten worse under President Obama,” said Elizabeth Gamble, 33, an African-American cook from Albany, Ga., “because he’s black and so he already had that strike against him once he got into office.”
Deep racial schisms also were evident in responses about law enforcement and the criminal justice system. About three-fourths of blacks said they thought the system is biased against African-Americans, and that the police are more likely to use deadly force against a black person than a white person. Only 44 percent of whites felt that the system is biased against blacks.
Clearly, views of the police are informed by personal experience. Four in 10 blacks — and nearly two-thirds of black men — said they felt they had been stopped by the police just because of their race or ethnicity, compared with only 1 in 20 whites. Fully 72 percent of blacks said they had suffered what they perceived as racial discrimination, compared with 31 percent of whites.
At a time when the unemployment rate for blacks is double that for whites and black households earn 40 percent less, blacks continue to assert they do not enjoy an equal shot at attaining financial success. The share of blacks who said whites have a better chance to get ahead rose by 14 percentage points in about a year’s time, to 60 percent. More than half of whites said blacks have equal opportunities, compared with about a third of blacks who said so.
But in a finding that may highlight class divisions more than racial ones, identical majorities of blacks and whites, 59 percent, said the economy enabled only a few people at the top to get ahead.
More than 80 percent of blacks favored affirmative action programs for minorities, a figure that has largely stayed static for nearly two decades. Only half of whites supported special efforts for minorities. This fall, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a new challenge to affirmative action policies in college admissions.
In large measure, the poll found that blacks and whites live in separate societies. Most whites say they do not live (79 percent), work (81 percent), or come in regular contact (68 percent) with more than a few blacks. While the numbers have not changed among whites in the past 15 years, the poll suggested some erosion in residential segregation among blacks. Only a third of blacks surveyed said that almost all of the people who lived near their homes were of the same race, compared with half who said so in a 2000 Times poll.
The poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points for all adults, 4 points for whites and 8 points for blacks.