The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A year after Ferguson, 6 in 10 Americans say changes are needed to give blacks and whites equal rights

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On Friday night, The Washington Post will team with WUSA-TV for "An Honest Conversation" about race in America. The special will air at 8 p.m. on WUSA and will be hosted by Bruce Johnson, with The Post's Clinton Yates also participating. Below, to set up the forum, we look at a key issue of debate — precisely how Americans view race relations today. On Tuesday, we looked at whether race relations have gotten worse under President Obama.

A growing number of Americans say the country needs more changes to give blacks equal rights, according to a new Washington Post poll -- the latest evidence that events in the year since Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Mo., almost one year ago have fueled fundamental concerns about racial equality.

The Post poll found 60 percent saying the nation needs to continue making changes to give blacks and whites equal rights, while 37 percent say those changes have already been made. The findings mark a shift from a 2014 Pew Research Center poll asking the same question. Back then, prior to Ferguson, 46 percent said more changes were needed to guarantee equal treatment.

[11 a.m. Update: A Pew Research Center poll released Wednesday also finds a significant shift on the same survey question since 2014, with the public saying by 59 to 32 percent that more changes are needed to give blacks and whites equal rights. The poll finds 50 percent saying racism is a “big problem” in U.S. society, up from 33 percent in 2010. Their full report is here.]

The public's shift on this broad question follows changing views on related issues over the past year. A July New York Times/CBS News poll plumbing racial issues in-depth found growing numbers saying race relations in the country are in bad shape, that the criminal justice system is biased against blacks and that blacks do not have an equal chance as whites to get ahead in society.

Altogether, the latest surveys show the public has reacted to the past year by growing more sensitive to racial discrimination and equality, even as deep divisions persist on the extent of the problem and potential solutions.

And it remains to be seen whether concern about racial problems will motivate Americans to push for specific changes in their own communities, where people see considerably less racial tension and inequality.

Who changed their views

In the Post poll, the 14-point growth in support for changes comes from across the demographic and political spectrum. Majority opinion flipped among whites, with 53 percent now saying more changes are needed, compared with 39 percent in 2014. Blacks are even more resolute than last year, with 90 percent saying changes are needed, rising 11 points from 2014. Among Hispanics, the share saying changes are needed to ensure equality for blacks rose 15 points, from 54 to 69 percent.

Attitudes changed less among Republicans, with 34 percent saying additional changes are needed to provide equality to blacks, marking a slight seven-point shift from 2014. About twice as many Democrats say the same (79 percent) with support rising 12 points since early last year.

Americans more concerned about discrimination, race relations and favoring action

In addition to worries about overall equality, surveys over the past year have found more Americans are worried about the state of race relations -- and fairness in the criminal justice system, in particular.

As mentioned, a July NYT/CBS survey showed ratings of race relations plunged sharply in the past year and stand at the lowest levels since 1992, after Los Angeles riots spurred by the Rodney King verdict. Fully 57 percent said race relations are "generally bad," while 37 percent said they are good; that marked an about-face from May 2014, when 55 percent rated race relations in the U.S. positively.

The drop was driven by sharply falling assessments of black and white Americans; fewer than four in 10 in either group now say race relations are good.

Discrimination is also seen as a more pressing issue, with the percentage calling it a "very serious" problem rising from 16 percent in 2010 to 37 percent in a June CNN poll.  The share of blacks calling discrimination a very serious issue jumped from 42 to 80 percent, while concern among whites grew by 16 percentage points (from 12 to 28 percent). A Gallup poll released Tuesday found satisfaction with the way blacks are treated fell from 62 percent in 2013 to 49 percent this year, with drops across racial lines.

Along those same lines, the NYT/CBS poll found fewer Americans saying blacks have an equal or better chance to get ahead in today's society than whites; 56 percent said this was true in the July poll, down 10 points from June 2014.

The NYT/CBS poll found a parallel rise in support for affirmative action-style programs. Fully 58 percent favored programs that make special efforts to help minorities get ahead in order to make up for past discrimination, up from 51 percent in 2011 and the highest point since 2005.

Growing support for such programs among whites was the primary driver of change on this question.

But Americans are less concerned about racial issues closer to home

While many polls find widespread and growing concern about racial issues broadly and nationally, they also indicate Americans do not see racial issues as a major problem in their own communities.

When the NYT/CBS poll asked about race relations in people's own community, a whopping 77 percent of the public said they are "generally good,"  hardly changed from 78 percent in March 2014 and almost double the number who say the same for the nation overall. Whites are more positive than African Americans on this question, but clear majorities of both say race relations in their communities are good (79 and 67 percent).

In dealing with police, roughly three-quarters of the public said police in their community make them feel "mostly safe," while about one-fifth say they feel "more anxious." Whites are more likely to say police make them feel safe, but a 58 percent majority of African Americans also say police make them feel safe rather than anxious.

Those sentiments come despite the experiences of many blacks that police have stopped them based on their race alone; 41 percent said they suspected a racially motivated police stop, compared with only 5 percent of whites.

Blacks and whites' still see racial issues through different lens

One constant factor in Americans' reactions to deadly altercations between black men and police has been sharp racial divisions. In a Post-ABC poll from last fall, 85 percent of African Americans disapproved of the Ferguson, Mo., grand jury's decision not to bring charges against the police officer who shot Brown, compared with just 35 percent of whites. Even in the case of Eric Garner's on-video choking death in New York, when a 49 percent plurality of whites disapproved of the decision not to bring charges against the officer, a nearly unanimous 91 percent of African Americans disapproved of the decision.

All of which is to say: Views of race relations are broadly much more negative than they have been in decades. But there remain significant racial splits when it comes to specific events, and there is considerably less urgency at the local level -- where it arguably matters most when it comes to taking action.

Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.

The Washington Post poll was conducted July 29-August 2, 2014 among a random national sample of 1,010 adults reached on conventional and cellular phones and interviewed in English and Spanish. Overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The error margin is 4.5 points among the sample of 639 white respondents and 10.5 points among the sample of 124 African American respondents. Interactive results with breakdowns by group can be found here, and exact wording and methodology can be found here.

The 2014 Pew Research Center survey which was used to compare trend over time was conducted from January 23-March 16, 2014, among a random national sample of 10,013 adults in the U.S. reached on conventional and cellular phones. Overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 1.1 percentage points. The error margin is 1.1 points for the sample of 7,227 white respondents and 3.5 points for the sample of 998 black respondents. Further methodological details on this survey can be found here, and details on other surveys in this post can be found at the links above.