Race relations are better than last year, but still have a ways to go

January 20, 2014, 1:48 AM GMT+0

Americans may disagree on whether race relations today are generally good or bad, but most of the country think that things have improved significantly since the 1960s.

In the last year, Americans saw a renewed focus on race relations: in Florida, George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing an African-American teenager, Trayvon Martin. August marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial. And the man who led South Africa away from apartheid, Nelson Mandela, died at the age of 95.

For this Martin Luther King weekend, the Economist/YouGov Poll looked at current perceptions of race relations in the United States. Overall, Americans are just about as likely as they were last August (the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s speech) to think relations between whites and blacks are good.

Last year, the King anniversary came only one month after Zimmerman’s acquittal which brought a drop in perceptions of race relations from what they had been two years before, at the time of the unveiling of the King Memorial in Washington, D.C.

What has changed since last August is the improving perceptions of race relations from African-American respondents. Last year, just 48% of African-Americans described U.S. race relations as good. Now, 56% do, up eight points. Black and white responses on this question now look very much alike.

White perceptions of race relations are no better today than they were last August. Their belief that race relations were good also slipped in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting; although most whites continued to say that race relations in the United States were good.

More than three quarters of the public agree that race relations are better now than there were in the 1960’s. Although there had been a drop in 2013 in the percentages saying things had improved, even then the overwhelming number continued to say it had.

Although blacks continue to be less likely than whites to say things are better today, two-thirds of them agree that race relations have gotten better since the 1960’s.

But there hasn’t been much perceived change since the Inauguration of the country’s first African-American President. In fact, more people say race relations have gotten worse since Barack Obama became President than think relations have gotten better. That is mostly because whites are more than three times as likely to say race relations have gotten worse than to say they have improved. African-Americans divide evenly when asked if race relations have gotten better or worse.

Some of the negative assessments by whites may be party-based. Republicans are extremely critical of nearly every action taken by the President and his Administration (for example, 95% of Republicans in this poll disapprove of how Barack Obama is handling his job, with four in five disapproving strongly. Two in three Republicans say race relations have gotten worse since 2009.

Clearly, there is work to be done when it comes to how whites and blacks get along. But more than half believe at least “quite a bit” of Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of racial equality has been achieved today. That is believed by 58% of whites and 49% of blacks. More than eight in ten in both groups say there has been at least some progress.

Full results can be found here.

Economist/YouGov poll archives can be found here.

Join YouGov today! Your views can shape the news...