Pessimism about race relations in America is higher than it has been in nearly a generation, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. In the aftermath of the mass shooting of police officers in Dallas and the high-profile police shooting deaths of two black men, in Baton Rouge and suburban St. Paul, Minn., more than 6 in 10 adults say race relations are generally bad, and a majority say they are getting worse.
“This is certainly the worst political climate that I’ve seen in my lifetime, but on some level the violence and hatred have always been around,” said Peniel Joseph, the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and a professor of history at the University of Texas.
While there is agreement that race relations are deteriorating, the common ground ends there, according to follow-up interviews with those who took part in the survey. There is no gathering consensus on how to solve the issue or who is to blame.
The Post-ABC poll finds 63 percent saying race relations are in bad shape, up from 48 percent in a Pew Research survey this spring.
The recent rise in concern about race relations has been primarily driven by white Republicans and independents, some of whom long have been skeptical of seeing racial discrimination as a national problem and now acknowledge the disharmony.
Concern about racial polarization among white Republicans has jumped 17 percentage points in the past three months. The new Post-ABC poll was conducted July 11-14 among a random national sample of 1,003 adults reached on cellular and landline phones, and carries a margin of sampling of error for overall results of 3.5 percentage points.
Roney George, a 49-year-old white Donald Trump supporter who lives in Riverbank, Calif., said what worries him about race is “everything you see on TV . . . What’s going on right now . . . Blacks killing people. Police killing blacks.”
Jane Fannie, a 60-year-old white Republican who lives in Butler, Tenn., sounded a tone of flat-out exasperation. “Race has always been a problem, and I don’t see no point in it,” she said, adding that she thinks police officers have gotten too much of the blame in the roiling debate over racial disparities in policing.
Among whites, there have been periodic spikes in concern about race relations in the years following the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, but African Americans have steadily grown more pessimistic. The protest movement Black Lives Matter started July 13, 2013, the night of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watchman who shot the teenager while he was walking home.
The following summer, demonstrations and riots followed the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Mo. Then Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man, died after being transported in the back of a police van in Baltimore. Both cities became the focus of protests and riots.
Eleven days after Brown’s death in 2014, 48 percent of African Americans saw race relations as generally bad, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll. The following year, 68 percent of them saw race relations as bad.
Earlier this month, the crisis reached a crescendo. Two police shootings of black men were captured on video, saturating social media and television news. On July 7, a black man who said he was angry about the police shootings opened fire at the end of a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, gunning down five police officers.
Now, 72 percent of blacks are pessimistic about the state of race relations.
Imani Dillon, an 18-year-old black woman who identifies as liberal and who lives in Durham, N.C., pointed to the recent news as well as pervasive societal prejudices as driving her worries.
Recently, she said, her father was jogging near his home, and a neighbor who lived a few doors down did not recognize him and called the police.
“My dad was really upset,” said Dillon, who plans to write in Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont when she votes. “He was, like, ‘I pay the same mortgage you pay, the same homeowners’ dues you pay, and you are calling the police on me?’ It’s scary because he could have been shot.”
Karen Cole Brown, a 63-year-old black woman living in Albany, Ga., said seeing the shootings of black men in the news was difficult.
“It touched me for a minute there, because I had my baby brother get killed by a police officer,” Brown said. “I could feel the pain.”
Her brother, Henry Cole, died in 1992 after running from police officers, who were responding to a call concerning a possible drug deal involving a black male, according to legal proceedings. Police officers, who Brown said were white, eventually tackled Cole and tried to cuff him. He died of asphyxiation due to neck compression.
“I would like to see black people treated with more dignity and respect,” Brown said. “Treat them as if they were a brother or sister.”
Suggestions for solutions to the widening racial gap varied widely. They included the need for broader conversations about race, criminal justice reforms, more responsibility on the part of African Americans for crime and poverty in their own communities and stronger direction from political leaders.
“I’d like to see the economy improve. I know it has been improving, but I’d like to see it get better,” said Daniel Geraldi, a 48-year-old white Democrat and Hillary Clinton supporter who lives in San Ramon, Calif. “What’s the saying? ‘A rising tide raises all boats.’ I think that would help! And then, you know, increasing the minimum wages would be a good idea. . . . Trying to eliminate the disparities in wealth and income would help a lot.”
The feelings of unease about race are layered over a series of concerns, including a presidential campaign that has been viewed as racially divisive and alarm amongst traditional civil rights groups about the erosion of laws passed in the civil rights era to eliminate discrimination.
The collision of these issues with a deeply divided electorate comes just before the presidential nominating conventions occur in the next two weeks and politicians are grappling with how to address them.
As Clinton and Trump prepare to face off in earnest in the general election, the presumptive Democratic nominee enters the contest with a large advantage among voters when it comes to dealing with issues of race.
In the new Post-ABC poll, more than twice as many Americans trust Clinton to handle race relations than trust Trump, 58 percent to 26 percent. The issue could be a weak spot for Trump, whose rhetoric often has been perceived as racially divisive.
He has said he is “the least racist person you have ever met,” but Trump sprinkles his remarks with references to Mexican immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists” and is on the record as proposing to ban Muslims from entering the United States.
“He’s trying to deport immigrants. This country was founded by immigrants. I see myself as a Republican, but it’s Donald Trump, so no,” said Perla Lucio, a 19-year-old Hispanic Republican in Houston, who plans to vote for Clinton.
More than 8 in 10 voters said they want the next president to be someone who puts a special focus on improving race relations, and 69 percent see it as at least a very important issue.
For now, President Obama remains the leading voice on U.S. race relations, arguing frequently throughout the past several days that Americans are far more united than divided.
“I know that for many, it can feel like the deepest fault lines of our democracy have suddenly been exposed and even widened. But the America I know . . . is just not as divided as some folks try to insist,” he said Saturday in his weekly radio address.
He encouraged people to find “the political will to keep changing this country for the better” and engage in challenging conversations. “The issues we’re grappling with go back decades, even centuries. But if we can open our hearts to try and see ourselves in one another, if we can worry less about which side has been wronged, and worry more about joining sides to do right . . . then I’m confident that together, we will lead our country to a better day.”
The swing toward negativity in attitudes about race relations is in stark contrast to the eve of Obama’s first election, when Americans were generally optimistic about the issue, and positive assessments of race relations surged to a record high 66 percent during the first months of his presidency. In the summer of 2008, more than half said race relations were generally good.
Now, people are nearly as worried about racial strife as they were during the race riots that engulfed parts of Los Angeles in 1992 after the beating of black motorist Rodney King by white L.A. police officers in 1991 and their subsequent acquittals. A 55 percent majority say race relations are getting worse, including at least half of black, white and Latino respondents.
Pat Kaufman, a 68-year-old white Democrat who lives in Gaithersburg, Md., said she hopes the current strife will lead to better days.
“I think that people, in general, who are not necessarily part of the problem, have a sensitivity that they didn’t have before because they weren’t aware of it,” she said. “With the incidents that are happening today, people will hopefully be much more sensitive and be able to develop more awareness as times goes on.”
Isaac Stanley-Becker and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.
Poll: Majority of Americans think race relations are getting worse