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Far Fewer Consider Racism Big Problem

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By Michael A. Fletcher and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 19, 2009

As President-elect Barack Obama prepares to take office, far fewer black and white Americans say they view racism as "a big problem" in American society than said so in mid-1996, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

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With the nation poised to inaugurate its first African American president, the survey found that just over a quarter of all Americans said they see racism as a large societal problem, less than half of the 54 percent who said so about a dozen years ago. Americans also have high hopes that Obama -- who is of mixed-race parentage but refers to himself as African American -- will inspire an improvement in race relations.

But even as declining numbers of Americans see racism as a big problem for the country, there has been little change in the amount of racism people perceive in their local communities. The survey also found that there has been little change over the past six years in the proportion of African Americans who said they have experienced racial bias in housing, employment and other areas.

"There are two levels of identity with racism," said Ron Walters, a University of Maryland political scientist. "One is the national level, which is more symbolic. And the other is how they parse it in terms of their lives."

Often, he explained, people channel the experiences of family and friends as they develop their views about racism. "If I have a brother who is pulled over by the cops, it influences me almost as much as if it happened to me," Walters said.

The poll shows continued wide disparities over how people of both races perceive the issue, and there has been no letup in the numbers sensing discrimination where they live.

In the new survey, 44 percent of blacks and 22 percent of whites continue to see racism as a large societal problem. In 1996, 70 percent of blacks and 52 percent of whites held that view.

Conversely, 28 percent of whites and 15 percent of blacks in the new survey said they see racism as a small problem, or no problem at all.

Racial disparities are also apparent when people were asked whether African Americans have achieved or will achieve racial equality in this country. Seventy-three percent of all those surveyed said African Americans have reached or will soon reach equality, including three-quarters of whites and just over half of blacks.

Despite the drop in those seeing racism as a big problem in the country, just as many see bias in their communities as said so in 2003, before Obama burst onto the national scene. Overall, 47 percent of Americans -- including nearly two-thirds of blacks and 43 percent of whites -- said they think blacks in their communities experience racial discrimination.

Meanwhile, more than four in 10 Americans said they have been discriminated against. Nearly three-quarters of blacks said that was the case, as did three in 10 whites.

Six in 10 African Americans polled said they have at some point felt unwelcome in a store because of their race, and about four in 10 said they have been stopped by the police or have been denied a job for racial reasons. Two in 10 said they have lost out on housing because of such bias. Those numbers are roughly in line with those from a January 2003 Post-ABC poll.

Still, a majority of all Americans are optimistic that race relations will improve under Obama. An ABC News poll last week showed a sharp jump since last summer in the number expecting the president-elect to help improve race relations: Nearly six in 10 now said they think Obama will make things better. In June, just four in 10 thought his candidacy would improve race relations.

Two-thirds of Americans see Obama's election as a sign of black progress, leaving many citizens "more proud" to be an American. More than half of African Americans, and 32 percent of whites said the election left them more proud, according to last week's poll.

In an interview Thursday with The Washington Post, Obama called his election evidence of the country's evolving views on race, and an opportunity to make further improvement through his example in office.

"What I'm trying to do is say, 'No, let's see if we can apply empathy and recognize that America probably has a narrower spectrum of differences than any other advanced country,' " Obama said. ". . . Let's focus on what we have in common."

The Washington Post-ABC News poll was conducted by conventional and cellular telephone Jan. 13 to 16 among a random national sample of 1,079 adults. The results from the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points; the error margin is seven points for the sample of African Americans.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.


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