Recognition of racism growing in US, says poll. What's fueling the shift?

Racism is a 'big problem', say 49 percent of those surveyed in a national poll - a significant rise from four years ago. Why?

(Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group via AP)
Berkeley High School students make their way down Telegraph Avenue to Sproul Plaza at University of California, Berkeley for a rally against racism in Berkeley, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015. Many Berkeley High School students walked out of class Thursday in protest of a racist message left on a computer screen a day earlier, district officials said.

Roughly half of Americans believe racism is "a big problem", according to a new poll conducted by CNN and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The 49 percent of 1,951 respondents who feel this way suggests a growing recognition of racism across America. Four years ago, the last time the poll was done, just over a quarter of respondents described the state of racism in the US that way. According to CNN, the percentage is also higher now than it was two decades ago, a time when the country was caught up in the O.J. Simpson trial, and just a few years after the brutal beating of Rodney King drew national attention, when 41 percent of Americans described racism as "a big problem," the news station reports.

The poll results raise the question: Is racism getting worse, or is public awareness growing?

Social media and video (by smartphone or dashboard cameras) of actions by law enforcement are playing a role in creating rapid awareness of racially-fueled incidents and protests, according to CNN. High-profile cases of black men killed such as Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray, have all raised public awareness of what black men face when confronted by law enforcement, and have galvanized the Black Lives Matter Movement. 

On college campuses across the country, students are responding to acts of discrimination and lack of diversity with demonstrations, and the Black Lives Matter movement is currently protesting instances of police violence in Minneapolis and Chicago

About 400 people attended a rally on Monday at the University of San Diego after The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that a white man grabbed the headscarf of a Muslim woman in a campus parking lot and made racist comments. The rally included a list of demands from several female Muslim students that included coursework on Islam and a new zero-tolerance policy for hate speech.

The outcry in San Diego echoes actions by five graduate students at the University of Kansas who filed a complaint when an assistant professor of communication studies, Andrea Quenette, used the N-word during a discussion about race in a class on pedagogy.

Ms. Quenette told the Lawrence Journal-World she was expressing to students examples of racism on college campuses, similar to those recently witnessed at the University of Missouri in Columbia, when she chose to use the slur. She was suspended from teaching. 

"It always seemed like it was getting better, like our generation was going to be better than previous generations," Deborah Aust, of Sterling Heights, Michigan, said to CNN. Ms. Aust was a participant in the CNN/KFF poll. "But the TV started telling us a different story, with all of these shootings by cops."

Aust, whose father and uncle both work in law enforcement, told CNN that media coverage of unarmed African-American men being shot by police have struck a chord with her.

"What's not helping is the police are getting off with a slap on the wrist. ... If it was me, and I was black, and this was happening in my community, I would be furious," Aust says.

But President Barack Obama pushed back against rhetoric that he said, “seeks to divide police and communities they serve,” in his speech last month to the International Association of Police Chiefs. The premise of policing as a threat to minority communities, the president added, “frames any discussion of public safety around ‘us’ and 'them.'"

That dichotomy, sometimes controversially referred to as "the Ferguson effect", comes at a time of historic highs in urban violence nationwide. According to the FBI, The Christian Science Monitor previously reported, it can’t generate data to "inform the debate in real-time" leading to "rhetoric and anecdotal evidence" filling a void of fact-based information.  

In its absence, Americans are drawing their own conclusions. 

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