Those results are part of a new survey of race in America that paints a picture of a nation still starkly divided by race. In responses to dozens of questions, black and white Americans told pollsters that, as the administration of the nation’s first black president comes to an end, they remain split on the role and reality of race in everyday life.
“One of the deep takeaways is this deep divide between blacks and whites in how they see everything from the status of race relations to how they see black and white economic equality,” said Juliana Horowitz, Pew’s associate director for social trends research.
According to the new Pew data, black and white Americans disagree not just about whether there is still work to be done for blacks to achieve equal rights (88 percent of black respondents said there is, compared with 53 percent of whites), but also about whether the country will ever achieve racial equality. The survey showed 43 percent of black respondents saying they doubt the country will ever make the changes necessary for black Americans to truly be equal to white Americans, compared with just 11 percent of white Americans polled.
About 58 percent of black Americans say there is too little attention paid to racial issues in America, while 41 percent of white Americans (and 59 percent of Republicans) say there is too much.
And, while 40 percent of black Americans say systemic racism is the bigger problem, 70 percent of white Americans insist that the bigger issue is racist incidents based on the prejudice of individuals.
“Part of what this survey highlights is just how difficult this issue is,” Horowitz said. “The starting point is just so different for everybody. There are disagreements about fundamental issues, and there is really no agreement on what the starting point of this conversation should be.”
The results also found that people are less likely to perceive racial discrimination against blacks in their own communities — 58 percent of those polled said that across the country blacks are treated less fairly than whites in dealing with police. But that drops to 43 percent who sense such discrimination in their own community.
The survey found that 41 percent of whites say “too much” attention is paid to race and racial issues today, which is down 11 points from a Washington Post-Kaiser-Harvard survey conducted in 2001. Along similar lines, the 58 percent of African Americans who say “too little” attention is paid to these issues is down slightly from 64 percent in 2001.
“Four years ago, no one was talking about black people the ways that we’re talking about black people now,” said Patrisse Cullors, one of the three co-founders of #BlackLivesMatter, the activist network that shares a name with the broader protest movement. “There wasn’t a national narrative around the fight for black lives; there wasn’t a national narrative about how racism still existed.”
Cullor said that “the fact that BLM had questions even being asked in a survey that’s polling the nation is an important testament to the work that we’ve been doing.”
The survey asked three questions about the ongoing protest movement: Do you support Black Lives Matter? Do you understand the goals of the movement? And do you think it will be effective in the long run in helping blacks achieve equality in the U.S.?
Black Americans largely support the protest movement (65 percent); however, just 33 percent of blacks polled said they understood the movement’s goals “very well.” Most black Americans (59 percent) think the movement will be effective, with 20 percent saying they think it will be “very effective.”
Four in 10 white Americans said they support the Black Lives Matter movement, and about 34 percent of whites polled said that in the long run they believe Black Lives Matter will be at least somewhat effective in helping black Americans achieve equality.
White support for the protest movement varies widely based on age and partisan affiliation. While 60 percent of white Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 said they support Black Lives Matter, just 26 percent of white Americans older than 65 do. About 64 percent of white Democrats said they supported Black Lives Matter, compared with 20 percent of white Republicans — a divide evident in how presidential candidates have handled the protest movement.
Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley each met with Black Lives Matter activists and released racial justice platforms. None of the 16 Republicans who ran in the primary did so.
Although black Americans are more likely to believe that race relations in the United States are generally bad (61 percent compared with 45 percent of whites), they are much more likely to credit the nation’s first black president with making things better. About 51 percent of blacks polled said Obama has made progress toward improving race relations, and an additional 34 percent of black American credit Obama with at least trying to improve race relations, despite the fact that quality-of-life indicators, such as unemployment and household income, continue to show racial disparities.
“We have to entangle the symbolic significance of his presence and the tangible policy outcomes of the last eight years,” said Eddie Glaude Jr., chairman of the Center for African American studies at Princeton University and author of “Democracy in Black: How Race Still Governs the American Soul.” “What does it mean for that high of a number of African Americans to hold that view in light of the statistical data about the state of black America … when many black communities remain in ruins?”
Gaude said: “When you speak with black Americans, many don’t attribute the ruins to him, it’s not his fault. There is this view held by many that Obama has done as much as he could do.”
White Americans — driven by Republican respondents — view Obama’s role in American race relations much more skeptically. About 32 percent of white Americans said they believe Obama has made race relations worse, including 62 percent of white Republicans polled.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.