The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A majority of Americans — white and black — agree that race relations are bad and getting worse

In the wake of a series of black men's shooting deaths during encounters with police and the killing of five police officers in Dallas by a sniper targeting white law enforcement officers, several of the nation's leading news organizations — The Washington Post and ABC News, the New York Times and CBS News — decided to include questions about race relations in their political polls.  Among the questions: How would you describe the state of race relations? Are they getting better or worse? And should the next president focus on racial issues?

Here's the takeaway. Majorities of Americans — black and white — agree that race relations are bad and getting worse. And they expect the next president to focus on doing something about this. Americans seem to pretty much agree with the way that the New York Times described its own poll findings earlier this month, which found that race relations have reached their Obama-years nadir. (One note worth mentioning here: The questions were put to Americans before the shooting deaths of three police officers Sunday in Baton Rouge.) The Washington Post and ABC News's most recent poll, completed July 14, seemed to affirm this, too.

Least Americans take any modicum of comfort in the idea that most agree that this is a country with race problems and needs the next president to focus attention there, experts contacted separately by The Fix say really, that's not quite true.

That's right. People may agree that America has racial problems. But hidden within the majority's response to those broad questions about the state of "race relations" identified up above are differences of opinion about what the problems are, how often they come up or how deeply they influence people's lives and what sounds like a potential solution. Those are details that have surfaced in other surveys.

"What this data tell us is that today people believe that things [race relations] are as bad as it seems that people saw them in 1990 or 1992 when millions of Americans saw the Rodney King beating on tape and then saw the officers acquitted [of state crimes] setting off the L.A. riot," said Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a Duke University political sociologist who studies the role of race in public life. "Things are that bad, once again for a majority, black and white.

"But what these polls don't tell us is why people think the situation is bad, what they see as going all wrong. And the truth is that we do know from the results of several other polls...that when you ask what do you mean when you say that things are bad, [a lot of] likely well-meaning white folks basically say black folks are out of control. They are killing us. They are killing each other. They have broken families. They are lazy but have all kinds of advantages that we do not. They are taking 'our jobs,' 'our slots in college.' Reverse racism is a massive problem and now, we and the police are in physical danger. That's what large numbers of white people mean when they say race relations are bad."

Bonilla-Silva is also the author of 2009's "Racism Without Racists," a book the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof mentioned in part six of his series of columns titled "When Whites Just Don't Get It." Bonilla-Silva pointed in particular to a series of recent Pew Research Center surveys on race. Take a look at the charts below.

The Pew polls detailed above and others also show that when a majority of black Americans are asked detailed questions about the state of race relations and other questions about their racial thinking and attitudes, they indicate that the problem is that police interactions with black Americans are too often baseless and rooted in racial profiling, that officers who engage in wrongdoing too often go utterly unpunished, rendering justice inaccessible and damaging their faith in the legal system and that employment, health, income and wealth disparities remain so vast across racial lines that the influence of ongoing racial discrimination directed at people of color is clear.

Put another way, when you ask large numbers of white and black Americans about "race relations," the phrase does not even seem to mean the same thing. As such, white and black Americans in other polls and surveys have indicated that they support different solutions to what they see as the problem, said Ibram Khindi, a University of Florida historian who specializes in contemporary African American life and American public policy. His book, "Stamped From the Beginning: A Narrative History of Racist Ideas in America," was published this year.

"It's quite remarkable that most blacks and whites seem to agree that there is a major racial problem and want the next president to be quite proactive in solving that problem," Khindi said. "But the differences in opinion across racial groups is more than clear. You can see it in other polls and you  can certain see it reflected in the news.

"After each of these police [involved] shootings, you have questions raised, perhaps a video then another wave of protests and then some people who argue that police are the problem and others who view protesters as the problem. If there is anything that police officers have killed for everyone, they have killed the post-racial ideal, the notion that race relations have healed and race is no longer a significant factor in America."

What's more, the sense that real but limited white economic losses, along with the disappearance of the group's once exclusive hold on certain jobs, schools and neighborhoods, has produced a political environment where Donald Trump's central campaign promise to "Make America Great Again" has very different meaning for many white and non-white voters, Bonilla-Silva said.