In a year that has seen nationwide protests over the police killings of unarmed African-American men, such as Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and the massacre of nine blacks at a historic black church in South Carolina, a new survey (pdf) shows that most Americans think race relations are worse today than they were just a decade ago.
In a new poll released Wednesday by the National Bar Association and the Sachs Media Group, most whites (53 percent) and African Americans (62 percent) think relations are worse (pdf). By comparison, nearly two-thirds of Americans surveyed shortly after President Barack Obama was elected said they believed race relations were generally good.
However, respondents did feel that race relations today had improved when compared with 50 years ago. Seventy-six percent of whites and 58 percent of blacks responded in the survey that race relations today were better than they were in the 1960s, despite the decline in race relations they saw in the last 10 years.
“It’s encouraging to see signs of progress in the decades since our parents’ and grandparents’ time,” National Bar Association President Benjamin Crump said, but adding, “It’s sad and frightening to think that progress has essentially come to a standstill.”
According to the survey of 1,088 Americans conducted between June 25 and July 6, less than a quarter of Americans believe the nation is close to achieving racial equality. Across all age groups, more than 68 percent of African Americans say they’ve been discriminated against because of their race, as opposed to 39 percent of whites. The highest percentage of whites who say they’ve faced discrimination was 59 percent—among millennials ages 18 to 34.
Karen Cyphers, who oversaw the survey for the Sachs Media Group, said there’s “unsettling evidence that young blacks see race relations more negatively than older black Americans.” Those surveyed were asked how they feel when they interact with strangers who are not members of their own racial group.
“Among black respondents,” Cyphers said, “the youngest were the most likely of all other age groups to report feeling not only caution but also mistrust, fear and anger.” She says most white millennials said they felt curiosity more than anything else.
“I believe the solution is with the young people,” said Crump, head of the nation’s oldest association of African-American lawyers and judges. He is best-known for representing the families of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Michael Brown, all black men or boys killed by police, but he admits being disheartened by the fact that millennials don’t see a path to achieving racial equality in America.
“These young people didn’t live through the ’50s and ’60s. … The only things they’ve seen are Trayvon Martin … [and] Freddie Gray in Baltimore,” Crump said. “They haven’t seen the overcoming … of discrimination like our parents saw during the long efforts of Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.].”
Crump says young people need to learn that if one counts the lynching of Emmett Till as the beginning of the civil rights movement, it took almost a decade before passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Clarence Anthony of the National League of Cities says he found some promising things in the survey, as well as in recent events. “When I see citizens throughout America marching,” Anthony said, “you tend to have 50-50 African American and … white young people saying we can’t tolerate this. We can’t have this in America.”
Anthony adds that it is important to continue to have national discussions about race relations. He says the NLC launched an initiative called REAL—aimed at giving local officials the tools to deal with the historical and systemic barriers caused by racism and inequality. Crump adds that the National Bar Association is partnering with other legal groups and putting together civil-justice town hall meetings in 10 cities.
“Convening is important,” Anthony said, “but the most important thing is solutions.”
That echoes the thoughts of President Obama, who spoke out against the nation’s legacy of racial discrimination in an address at a funeral for one of the nine African Americans gunned down at Charleston, S.C.’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“For too long,” Obama said June 26, “we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present. Perhaps we can see that now.”
He told the crowd that the shocking nature of the killings requires that Americans “not settle for symbolic gestures” and follow up “with the hard work of more lasting change.”