What do Americans make of the state of race relations in 2021?

January 18, 2021, 1:00 PM UTC

Ronald Reagan signed legislation establishing a national holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1983.  But the day wasn’t observed in every state until 17 years later. Now, nearly four decades after it became a holiday, there are still Americans who don’t accept the holiday. 

In the latest Economist/YouGov poll one-quarter (24%) think Dr. King’s day — celebrated on the third Monday of January, close to his January 15 birthday — should not be a national holiday.  

Republicans (35%) are far less likely than Democrats (81%) or Independents (56%) to believe Martin Luther King’s birthday should be a national holiday. In fact, Republicans are more likely to say it should not be a federal holiday (42%). Black Americans (78%) and Hispanic Americans (66%) are much more likely than white Americans (50%) to believe the holiday should be recognized.

Whatever their party identification, most Americans recognize there are real concerns about race in America, that Dr. King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech is still relevant today, and that the protests of the Civil Rights Movement had a positive effect on the passage of major civil rights legislation. But Americans divide on whether protests are still necessary today in order to achieve racial equality.  

By more than two to one, Black Americans say they are still necessary, but by 47% to 39%, white Americans say they are not. This is the case even though half of white respondents believe that only some – or even less – of Dr. King’s dream of equality has been yet achieved. 

Martin Luther King
 

For most Americans, race relations remain a problem. When asked about the state of race relations in the United States today, most say they aren’t good, and they haven’t been good for a while. Today, two-thirds of Americans (65%) describe race relations in America as bad, compared to 40% in 2009. 

While two in three Americans (64%) believed race relations were good throughout President Barack Obama’s first term, that changed in the middle of his second term, starting after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and have not improved during Donald Trump’s presidency. Half (51%) of the public believe race relations have gotten worse in the last four years, including 48% of white Americans and 71% of Black Americans. Racism is seen as a very or somewhat serious problem by more Black Americans (87%) than white Americans (70%). 

The public also sees a difference in law enforcement’s treatment of those who took over the US Capitol on January 6 and this summer’s Black Lives Matter protestors. Most believe that the police did not respond to the Capital takeover forcefully enough, and by more than two to one (50% vs 20%) Americans believe law enforcement treated Black Lives Matter protestors more harshly than they dealt with those who stormed the Capitol.  

Republicans are less likely to see a distinction in the treatment of the two groups (42%), and when they do, they tend to say those who took over the Capitol were treated more harshly (41%).  

Related: One week later, what do Americans make of the Capitol attack? 

See the toplines and crosstabs from this week’s Economist/YouGov Poll 

Methodology: The Economist survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,500 US Adult Citizens interviewed online between January 10 - 12, 2021. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the US Bureau of the Census, as well as 2016 Presidential vote, registration status, geographic region, and news interest. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all US citizens. The margin of error is approximately 3.6% for the overall sample.    

Image: Getty