The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

People say race relations are getting worse. That’s pretty rare.

A demonstrator in Boston protests recent grand jury decisions not to indict police officers in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

The protests on the streets of Washington, New York and other cities nationwide over the weekend painted a pretty grim picture of race relations in the United States. And a recent poll showed that a majority of Americans think race relations have actually gotten worse under President Obama.

But although there is a huge amount of concern about the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers in recent months, this kind of unrest is still the exception rather than the rule. Although race relations have certainly taken a hit, on the whole they have been trending in a positive direction.

And in fact, the vast majority of African Americans today view racial problems as something that occur in other people's communities -- not their own.

Gallup polling conducted last year showed that 81 percent of African Americans think their civil rights have either "greatly" or "somewhat" improved in their lifetimes. Just 7 percent said they have gotten worse.

Far more say that civil rights have "somewhat" (52 percent) rather than "greatly" (29 percent) improved, but these numbers have gotten slightly better in recent years. (The 2013 poll, we would note, was conducted in June and July, during the trial in which George Zimmerman was later found not guilty of killing Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager.)

The same Gallup poll showed that an increasing number of people -- both black and white -- expected not only that race relations would improve, but that they would eventually cease to be a problem in the country. Nearly half of blacks said they expected it would eventually be worked out.

This, again, was conducted before the most recent controversies, and it's possible that that the cases of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., have stopped the trend. But the trend is there, and it will take plenty of time to figure out whether we've reached a genuine turning point (for the worse) in race relations.

Indeed, polling has shown at least a momentary dip in perceptions of race relations. In addition to the poll mentioned at the top, a CBS News poll released Friday showed that 34 percent of African Americans say race relations today are "good," while 54 percent said they are "bad." Before Brown was killed, those numbers were about even.

But when CBS asked people specifically about their communities, the positive reviews nearly doubled, to 66 percent. Just 28 percent of blacks thought race relations in their communities were "bad."

These numbers, again, are down slightly from where they were even earlier this year. But they demonstrate that racial strife, like a lot of other perceived problems in Americans society, is generally considered more of an abstract or nationwide problem than a local one. And until the problem is more localized, the amount of unrest is likely to be limited.

It's a lot like disapproval of Congress. Although people hate Congress as a whole, they generally like their representative significantly more than the institution as a whole. Basically they think: My guy/gal isn't part of the problem. And thus, the vast, vast majority of incumbents are reelected year after year, and relatively little changes.

We'll see in the months ahead whether that dividing line between local and national problems is a significant one.