Majority of Americans think race relations are poor, survey finds

Nearly a year after Michael Brown's death and the riots in Ferguson, a survey by The New York Times and CBS News reveals how Americans are feeling about race. 

David Goldman/AP
Devonte Reed, 5, right, looks over the shoulder of James Watson, both of Baltimore, while attending a demonstration at City Hall the day after charges were announced against the police officers involved in Freddie Gray's death, Saturday, May 2, 2015, in Baltimore.

Race relations are good in their own communities, Americans say, but the country as a whole is more deeply divided.

A survey on race relations conducted by The New York Times and CBS News revealed that six in ten Americans believe that race relations on the national level are generally bad; and four in ten believe it is getting worse.

According to the Times/CBS poll, only 37 percent of respondents thought race relations were generally good in the United States, a sharp decline from survey-takers on the cusp of an Obama White House in 2008, when two-thirds of respondents said race relations were generally good. In contrast, 77 percent believe race relations are good in their communities right now, a number that has remained fairly consistent for two decades.

“I’m not surprised it’s gotten worse under President Obama,” said Elizabeth Gamble, 33, an African-American cook from Albany, Ga., in a follow-up interview with the Times, “because he’s black, and so he already had that strike against him once he got into office.”

The Times also reported on how the feelings of blacks in the US have changed over the past six-plus years.

"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."

Just 20 percent of those surveyed said they thought race relations were improving, while about 40 percent of both blacks and whites said things were staying essentially the same.

While the 1,205 people who took the survey speak to the pain and racial tension in America nationwide, structural changes are starting to take shape in places where the violence, civil disobedience, and emotional debate have been most deeply felt.  

Shortly after the Confederate battle flag came down on South Carolina’s state capitol grounds, the NAACP voted to end its 15-year boycott of the state, which was originally prompted by the display of the flag.

South Carolina removed the flag after three weeks of debate to chants of "USA, USA!," Reuters reported.

In the same week in July, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) announced the organization was removing all barriers to South Carolina bidding for the right to host championship-level college sports and bowl games, after the removal of the Confederate flag.

The NCAA, like the NAACP, enacted a boycott fifteen years prior in protest of the flag.

Still, the majority of whites surveyed believe the Confederate flag is mostly an emblem of Southern pride, while 68 percent of blacks said they saw it more as a symbol of racism.

“The Confederate flag is a part of history that should not just be thrown out the door,” said Mary Nordtome, a white retired rancher from Fort Sumner, N.M., in a follow-up interview with the Times. “It really hurts me that we have to be so politically correct in everything.”

In both Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, which became violent inflection points after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, both at the hands of law enforcement, the US Department of Justice has opened probes, and plans to make recommendations on police use of force, and rooting out patterns of discriminatory policing. 

“Our goal is to work with the community, public officials, and law enforcement alike to create a stronger, better Baltimore,” said US Attorney General Loretta Lynch, in May.  “The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division has conducted dozens of these pattern or practice investigations, and we have seen from our work in jurisdictions across the country that communities that have gone through this process are experiencing improved policing practices and increased trust between the police and the community.”

In Ferguson, a new police chief was named on Wednesday. Andre Anderson, a black police commander from Arizona, was hired in part because of his success with community outreach in policing.

Despite proposed structural changes in law enforcement, 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, according to the Times.

One aspect of race relations that may be improving is the state of segregation in America. Only a third of blacks surveyed said that almost all of the people who lived near their homes were of the same race, compared with half who said so in a similar Times poll in 2000.

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