A bad year for race relations

January 19, 2015, 3:27 PM GMT+0

As America celebrates the life and the accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it will find little to celebrate in the contemporary state of race relations in the United States

The past year’s conflicts between white police and African-Americans have turned the optimism the public expressed just last year backwards into a pessimism not seen in years.

When asked whether race relations in the U.S. are good or bad, a majority of Americans in the Economist/YouGov Poll – both black and white – describe race relations as bad – the first time that has been the case during the Obama Administration.

The change is particularly noticeable among whites, who had remained far more positive than blacks have been when describing the state of race relations in the country. But in this week’s poll, that is no longer the case. For the first time in the poll, a majority of whites describe race relations as bad. African-Americans agree. However, even more blacks felt that way in 2010, during the Shirley Sherrod controversy, when remarks she made before the NAACP were edited by a conservative blogger and then posted online to make her appear racist.

There are other indications that perceptions are worse now than they have been in recent years. In August 2013, on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, perceptions of race relations were positive, although African-Americans were divided. African-Americans are more likely now than they were then to see racism as a big problem facing the country. And while only 20% of whites today agree that it is a big problem, nearly two in three whites say it is at least somewhat of a problem.

Both whites and blacks believe there is at least a fair amount of racial discrimination today. But there are differences in degree. More than half of blacks say there is a “great deal” of discrimination against them, up eight points since the summer of 2013.

There are a few other groups whom more than half the public views as suffering from at least a fair amount of discrimination: Muslim-Americans, Arab-Americans, LGBT Americans and Mexican Americans. About half say that about women and Jewish Americans.

Members of the discriminated-against group are frequently more likely than others to see discrimination. For example, two-thirds of women, compared with 38% of men, say women face at least a “fair amount” of discrimination. 86% of Hispanics in this poll see discrimination against Mexican Americans, a rise of ten points since 2013.

And the percentage seeing racial progress since the 1960’s when Dr. King delivered his famous speech has dropped dramatically. Last year, more than three in four believed race relations had improved since the 1960’s. Now just 54% do. Numbers have dropped for both whites and blacks.

There has also been a downward slide in how Americans view what has happened to race relations since the inauguration of the first black President. Now just about half the country (and more than half of white Americans) say race relations have gotten worse since Barack Obama first took office. And a third of blacks agree, up 16 points from a year ago.

Dr. King’s message still matters. Two-thirds of whites and 80% of blacks say the “I Have a Dream” speech is still relevant today. And that is despite the fact that only about half the public, white and black, think a good deal or a fair amount of Dr. King’s dream has been realized today.

Although whites and blacks divided on the protests after the shooting of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri, and no indictment of the officers involved, they agree on what Dr. King’s marches accomplished. Three in four, white and black, believe the protests marches speeded up the passage of civil rights legislation.

See the full poll results

Economist/YouGov poll archives can be found here.