Kevin Sack and Megan Thee-Brenan, New York Times, July 23, 2015
Seven years ago, in the gauzy afterglow of a stirring election night in Chicago, commentators dared ask whether the United States had finally begun to heal its divisions over race and atone for the original sin of slavery by electing its first black president. It has not. Not even close.
A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted last week reveals that nearly six in 10 Americans, including heavy majorities of both whites and blacks, think race relations are generally bad, and that nearly four in 10 think the situation is getting worse. By comparison, two-thirds of Americans surveyed shortly after President Obama took office said they believed that race relations were generally good.
The swings in attitude have been particularly striking among African-Americans. During Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign, nearly 60 percent of blacks said race relations were generally bad, but that number was cut in half shortly after he won. It has now soared to 68 percent, the highest level of discontent among blacks during the Obama years and close to the numbers recorded in the aftermath of the riots that followed the 1992 acquittal of Los Angeles police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King.
Only a fifth of those surveyed said they thought race relations were improving, while about 40 percent of both blacks and whites said they were staying essentially the same.
The nationwide telephone poll of 1,205 people, which focused on racial concerns, was conducted from July 14 to July 19, at the midpoint of a year that has seen as much race-related strife and violence as perhaps any since the desegregation battles of the 1960s. It came one month after the massacre of nine black worshipers at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., apparently by a white supremacist, and after a yearlong series of shootings and harassment of blacks by white police officers that were captured by smartphone cameras.
The Charleston shootings, which took place during Bible study on June 17, generated a national outpouring of outrage and grief. The suspect’s embrace of the Confederate battle flag in Internet photographs prompted South Carolina’s Republican governor, Nikki R. Haley, and its Republican-controlled legislature to order the flag’s removal from the grounds of the State House in Columbia.
Still, almost half of those questioned said the Obama presidency had had no effect on bringing the races together, while about a third said it had driven them further apart. Only 15 percent said race relations had improved. Seventy-two percent of blacks said they approved of the way Mr. Obama is handling race relations, compared with 40 percent of whites.
The divide, seen in the answers to virtually every question in the poll, was stark when respondents were asked whether they thought most Americans had judged Mr. Obama more harshly because of his race. Eighty percent of blacks said yes, while only 37 percent of whites agreed.
Deep racial schisms were also evident in responses about law enforcement and the criminal justice system. About three-fourths of blacks said they thought that the system was biased against African-Americans, and that the police were more likely to use deadly force against a black person than a white person. Only 44 percent of whites felt that the system was biased against blacks.