President Obama delivers remarks at the end of a meeting with (L-R) Ferguson resident Rasheen Aldridge, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Philadelphia Police Department Commissioner Charles Ramsey and other elected officials, community and faith leaders and law enforcement officials in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building Dec. 1, 2014 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

A significant majority of Americans think race relations in the United States are bad, and race issues appear as pressing today as they have been at basically any point since the Civil Rights era, according to new polls.

And all that was before Saturday, when according to all indications, the long-simmering tensions turned deadly.

The murders of two New York City police officers by a man who had apparently signaled the killings would be in retaliation for the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown have ratcheted up the rhetoric in an already-pitched debate about police treatment of black men.

And that debate is arguably as big now as it has been at any time in nearly half a century -- since the Civil Rights era ended in the late 1960s.

Polling from Gallup released Friday, the day before officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were killed, showed 13 percent of Americans said race relations was the most pressing issue in the United States. That number has only been higher once since the late 1960s; that was in 1992, when the beating of Rodney King by police officers led to riots in Los Angeles.


And while African Americans are more likely to see race relations as the most pressing problem -- 22 percent say that it is -- 9 percent 0f whites agree with them.

Similarly, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released earlier in the week showed 57 percent of American rated race relations as either "very bad" or "fairly bad." The last time that was higher was in 1995, after the O.J. Simpson verdict. And even then, the number who said race relations were "very bad" was slightly lower (20 percent) than it is today (23 percent).

The NBC/WSJ poll also showed significant agreement among whites (58 percent "bad") and blacks (63 percent "bad"). So it's not like it's just one group that sees this as a pressing issue.

And again, these were the numbers before Saturday. It's a pretty safe bet that issues of race and police will gain even more immediacy in the days and weeks ahead.

Whether that will actually mean anything gets addressed or changes is another question. Sometimes issues heat up really quickly, only to fade as the relevant events fade from memory.

Given this issue has now been simmering for more than four months, though, it's clear this is a pretty significant moment.