For the first time in more than two decades, more than one in 10 Americans say that race is the most pressing issue facing the country, according to a new Gallup poll.
The poll showed that 13 percent of Americans think that race relations and racism are the most important problems, the same number of people who said the economy, and more than than those who cited unemployment (8 percent), immigration (7 percent) and terrorism (2 percent), among many other things.
In fact, the only thing that more people named as a problem was general dissatisfaction with the government, Congress and politicians, with 15 percent of people citing that.
The surge in concern regarding race is not unexpected, as Americans closely followed widespread protests across the country over unarmed black men who died after encounters with police officers. Public anger and demonstrations have surged in recent months after the deaths of Michael Brown (killed by a police officer) and Eric Garner (who died after being placed in an apparent chokehold) over the summer, and the more recent decisions of grand juries in Missouri and New York not to indict the officers involved.
In addition, protests followed the death of a 12-year-old named Tamir Rice in Ohio. Rice, who was black, was shot and killed by a white police officer while playing with a BB gun, an incident that, like Garner’s death, was captured in a graphic video. Rice’s death came two months after a grand jury opted not to indict officers for shooting John Crawford III, who was killed by police at a Wal-Mart near Dayton while holding an air rifle that could fire pellets or BBs.
These deaths and ensuing demonstrations have made race, policing and discrimination topics that are seemingly everywhere, prompting discussions and debate everywhere from Facebook to dinner tables across the country. And this has translated into increased interest in news about the demonstrations against police brutality, too: A recent Pew Research Center survey found that about one in three Americans said they were “very closely” following these protests.
The Gallup poll showed that the number of Americans naming race as the country’s most important problem shows that the concern today pales in comparison to the numbers seen during the 1950s and 1960s, which makes sense. But the surge in concern is noteworthy when you consider that in September, just weeks after the Ferguson protests dominated the news, only 3 percent of people said race was a key issue. Since the Rodney King riots of 1992, when 15 percent of Americans said race was the country’s top issue, that number has never topped 5 percent, Gallup says.
President Obama remarked on this heightened awareness during his end-of-the-year news conference Friday, saying that the recent news has made more people aware of a disconnect minorities have long cited.
“Obviously, how we’re thinking about race relations right now has been colored by Ferguson, the Garner case in New York and a growing awareness in the broader population of what many communities of color have understood for some time,” he said. “And that is there are specific instances, at least where law enforcement doesn’t feel as if it’s being applied in a colorblind fashion.”
During his remarks, Obama pointed to a task force on policing he had created this week, saying that it was meant to provide concrete suggestions that police departments and other law enforcement agencies can use to improve relationships with minority communities.