The election of America’s first black president in 2008 provided of hope for some that race relations would soon change for the better. Fast forward seven years and the news is grim: The majority of white and black Americans think race relations are generally bad in the country, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted last week. Four in 10 think they’re getting worse.
The change comes in stark contrast to opinions expressed shortly after President Barack Obama’s first election. Before his win, nearly 60% of blacks felt race relations were bad but, afterward, only 30% thought so. Now, that number is back up to 68%, according to the new poll.
That’s nearly the same level of discontent witnessed after the acquittal in 1992 of the white police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King, an African-American, in Los Angeles, according to The New York Times.
In particular, the poll highlighted how white and black opinions are increasingly polarized on racially-charged issues such as the Confederate flag, which was the object of renewed national attention after a white supremacist massacred nine parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on June 17. The shooter, Dylan Roof, had been pictured holding a Confederate flag, and the events eventually led to the removal of the Confederate emblem from Statehouse grounds — the presence of which had been long debated and defended in past decades.
The new poll showed that 68% of blacks saw the flag as a symbol of racism. In contrast, 57% of whites considered it to be representative of Southern pride, and 65% of white Southerners felt it signified heritage rather than bigotry. That number was even higher — three-fourths — among white Southern men, according to the study.
That divide was also evidenced in opinions about policing, another issue that has recently drawn scrutiny after several high-profile deaths of black men -- such as Michael Brown, Walter Scott and Tamir Rice -- at the hands of white police officers. In the past year, the Justice Department has found evidence of racially biased practices by the Cleveland and Ferguson, Missouri, police departments.
About 75% of blacks, as compared to 44% of whites, felt the criminal justice system was biased against African-Americans, the poll showed. Three-fourths of blacks also felt that officers were more likely to exercise deadly force against a black person than a white person.
“Clearly, views of the police are informed by personal experience,” The New York Times wrote. “Four in 10 blacks, and nearly two-thirds of black men, said they felt they had been stopped by the police just because of their race or ethnicity, compared with only one in 20 whites.”
Obama's Justice Department — which was led by the first African-American attorney general, Eric Holder, and then by the first female African-American attorney general, Loretta Lynch — has conducted civil rights probes of the Ferguson, Cleveland, and is currently investigating the Baltimore police department.
For its part, Obama’s administration has largely escaped being associated with racially disparate actions. While two-thirds of those surveyed in the new poll felt that the Obama White House treated blacks and whites equally, the number is slightly down from the 2010 level of 83%. A divide, however, was evident in feelings on how Obama himself handled race relations: 72% of blacks approved of his actions, while only 40% of whites did so.
Black support of Obama’s two presidential campaigns, as well as his job approval ratings, has been notably higher than his white support. A deep racial divide was evidenced in nearly every question in the poll. It “was stark when respondents were asked whether they thought most Americans had judged Mr. Obama more harshly because of his race,” The New York Times wrote. “Eighty percent of blacks said yes, while only 37 percent of whites agreed.”
The telephone poll, which surveyed 1,205 people around the country during the course of five days in mid-July, has margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points for adults, four points for white, and eight points for blacks, according to The New York Times.