The FINANCIAL — Speaking at the services of five slain Dallas police officers on Tuesday, President Barack Obama said the recent violence makes Americans wonder “if the divides of race in America can ever be bridged,” but he urged them to “reject such despair.”
The majority of Americans, at least from a long-term perspective, share the president’s optimism. Fifty-seven percent of Americans in June said that a solution to relations between whites and blacks “will eventually be worked out,” while 40% said that black-white relations “will always be a problem.”
The latest results are from Gallup’s June 7-July 1 Minority Rights and Relations poll, conducted before the events of the past two weeks in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas — the latter the occasion for Obama’s speech in Dallas.
Americans’ optimism about black-white relations in the long term has held steady over the past three years, even with a number of incidents involving black men being killed in encounters with white police officers that sparked nationwide protests and, ultimately, the Black Lives Matter movement, according to Gallup.
In 1963, the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago asked Americans about the long-term prospects for race relations in the U.S., and 55% said that a solution would eventually be worked out. Gallup started updating the trend on this question in the 1990s and found Americans’ optimism by that point had dropped significantly. They were most negative after the verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial in October 1995, when an all-time low of 29% said a solution would eventually be worked out. The public grew more positive in the 2000s, and, across 13 different surveys conducted since 2002, at least half of Americans have said a solution to black-white relations will eventually be worked out. Americans were most optimistic in November 2008, just after Obama’s election as the nation’s first black president.
In 1963, blacks were significantly more optimistic than whites about an eventual solution to race relations issues. Since 1997, however, whites have consistently been more positive than blacks, with the size of the gap in attitudes between the two remaining fairly constant. This year’s nine-percentage-point gap — 57% of whites saying that a solution will be worked out, compared with 48% of blacks — is about average for recent years.
Majority of 53% Rates Current State of Race Relations as “Good”
Last year, Gallup reported a precipitous drop in Americans’ positive views of the current state of relations between whites and blacks, from 70% in 2013 to 47% in 2015 — likely a response to the highly publicized deaths of several black men in dealings with police. In this year’s survey, 53% of Americans rate relations between whites and blacks as “very” or “somewhat good,” up marginally from year to year.
Even with this slight increase in positive attitudes about black-white relations, Americans’ views remain — along with last year’s — the most negative of any measured since this trend began in 2001. The high point was 72% “good” in 2004.
The uptick this year in positive views of race relations is driven mostly by a more optimistic view among whites, whose “good” rating rose from 45% to 55%. Blacks’ views, in contrast, have stayed essentially the same, at 51% “good” last year and 49% “good” this year.
A majority of Americans interviewed in June continue to say a solution to the problems associated with black-white relations will eventually be worked out. These attitudes about the long-term prospects for black-white relations have not changed materially over the past half-decade, even as race relations have been tested. The continued optimism about an eventual solution gives some hope that Obama’s and others’ calls for peace — and for the races to work together instead of enacting violence — may reach a receptive audience.
Despite this long-term optimism, however, Americans’ assessment of the current state of black-white relations in the country is much worse than it was before 2015.
The racial breakdown in these results reinforces the general finding that whites and blacks tend to look at the world through different lenses. Similar to what is seen in terms of white and black attitudes toward the police, white Americans are more positive than black Americans about both the current state of race relations and about the prospect of a race relations solution eventually being worked out.
After race riots and massive civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s, the presidentially appointed Kerner Commission warned that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” These measures of current public opinion, along with a number of others showing that blacks and whites still see two different societies, continue to indicate the depth of the challenge in addressing what Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal more than 70 years ago called the “American Dilemma.”