Whites had a much more positive opinion of black progress, with 35 percent saying things have gotten better in the past five years. Even among whites, however, that share has fallen from 49 percent in 2009.
In the fifth year of the Obama presidency, Pew researchers and scholars of race relations attribute the pessimistic outlook among African Americans to the fading glow of Obama’s first term and the lingering struggle to emerge from the recession. Pew said sentiment is approximately where it was before the recession and Obama’s election.
“The euphoria over Obama’s election and reelection has worn off,” said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University. “A lot of people assumed that because a number of blacks were elected to high-profile offices — President Obama, [Massachusetts Gov.] Deval Patrick and [Newark Mayor] Cory Booker — there would be no more racism in American society. But it involves more than an election to bring about true racial reconciliation.”
Other polls also have noted both the buoyant optimism expressed by African Americans during Obama’s first term and the subsequent deflation in hope.
In a series of Washington Post polls, 60 percent of blacks surveyed in 2008, before Obama’s election, said King’s vision had not been fulfilled. That dramatically flipped by the president’s inauguration in 2009, when 65 percent of blacks said it had. But the pessimism had returned by 2011, with 56 percent saying King’s dream had not become reality.
The Pew survey was released at the beginning of a week’s worth of commemorative events marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where a multiracial crowd of 250,000 people heard King make his ringing “I Have a Dream” speech. Marches are scheduled for Saturday and Aug. 28, the actual anniversary, when Obama will speak where King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Several groups, including those that organized the 1963 march, plan to hold seminars and panel discussions with a forward-
looking agenda on issues they say must be tackled if progress is not to be reversed.
The poll and the anniversary events come shortly after an array of high-profile cases in which race was front and center — the acquittal of a man who shot unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin; a Supreme Court ruling that invalidated a key part of the Voting Rights Act; debate over racial profiling in New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy; and controversy after several celebrities and athletes used racial slurs. Reactions to the verdict in the Martin case were particularly polarized, with blacks much more likely than whites to see the shooting, and the shooter’s acquittal, as an example of deep-rooted racism in society.