Poll: Most Americans Believe Race Relations Are Bad Right Now

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images.
More than 50% of white and Black people in the United States believe that race relations are generally bad right now, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll released on Thursday. The poll surveyed 1,205 people — 751 of them white and 312 of them Black — between July 14 and 19, and covered topics ranging from general race relations to President Obama's progress on racial issues to what the Confederate flag symbolizes.

The poll results come during a month in which: white supremacist Dylann Roof allegedly committed one of the worst hate crimes in recent history; a Pew analysis of census data revealed persistent and wide disparities in the numbers of impoverished Black and white children; and, in popular culture, a new book by Harper Lee launched a nationwide discussion over the transformation of American cultural icon Atticus Finch from hero to bigot.
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More than 50% of white and Black people in the United States believe that race relations are generally bad right now.

New York Times/CBS News poll
It's also a month in which deaths of Black people in police custody have continued to make headlines. Activists and citizens alike have continued to demand answers about the circumstances surrounding the death of 28-year-old Sandra Bland. Today also marks three months since Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Baltimore man, died in police custody. Last week, protesters in New York took to the streets to demand justice for Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died after being put in an illegal chokehold by police in 2014.
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The poll found something very interesting about how Americans feel about race relations on macro and micro levels. While nearly 80% of whites and Blacks believe that race relations in the United States are either getting worse or staying the same, the vast majority of whites and Blacks believe that race relations in their own communities are generally good.

"The general assumption is that people interact with their neighbors, and this interaction might translate into more positive views of people from other racial and ethnic groups," Kris Marsh, PhD, a sociologist and professor at the University of Maryland, told Refinery29 in a email.

"However, in general, whites and Blacks live in highly racially segregated [neighborhoods] and have limited interactions with those of the opposite race. This lack of interaction could be the undercurrent to this disparity," Dr. Marsh added.

In contrast to opinions about race relations nationwide, the vast majority of whites and Blacks believe that race relations in their own communities are generally good.

New York Times/CBS News Poll
The New York Times was quick to point out the fact that, in a comparable poll taken prior to Obama's election, two thirds of Americans thought that race relations in the U.S. were generally good. Dr. Marsh says she believes that disparity stems from the fact that many Americans incorrectly believed that electing a Black president would in and of itself solve our nation's racial issues. "I think in some ways, [Barack Obama's election] made him the racial messiah," Marsh told Refinery29.

Dr. Marsh says she worries that Americans believed the election of a "biracial president" would "relieve us of historical transgressions" like Jim Crow laws and slavery. Of course, she explains, this was not the case. Dr. Marsh believes that the U.S. continues to suffer from inherent "structural racism" that is "set up to disadvantage Blacks and other minorities...and gives preferential treatment and power to whites."

I think in some ways, [Barack Obama's election] made him the racial messiah.

Dr. Kris Marsh, University of Maryland sociologist
The New York Times/CBS News poll touched on such structures, asking if shortened voting windows were demonstrative of state budget cuts or attempts to deter minorities from voting, and assessing national desire for programs (such as affirmative action) that "make special efforts to help minorities get ahead."

In response to the question about cuts to early voting, 53% of whites and 40% of Blacks felt they hadn't heard enough about the issue to respond, while 46% of Blacks felt the changes were intended to thwart them. As for programs to benefit minorities, 51% of whites said they were in favor of such initiatives, in contrast to 83% of Blacks.
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