A new Pew Research Center poll shows 58 percent now say racism is currently a “big problem” in the United States. That's the highest that number has been since at least 1995, when The Washington Post and others began asking this specific question.
The previous high was in June 1996, after months of fires being set at predominantly black churches in the South. At the time, 54 percent said racism was a major problem in the United States.
That number sank into the 20s and 30s during the first few years of Barack Obama's presidency, before the shootings of unarmed black men by police pushed racism back into the headlines in the summer of 2015. Since then, polls have repeatedly shown people thought race relations deteriorated during the tenure of the country's first black president.
Now they continue to deteriorate under his successor, at least according to how Americans perceive things.
The specific question about whether racism was a “big problem” was first asked in 1995; similar questions previously showed fewer people labeling racism such a major problem. (Not because racism wasn't a major problem, mind you, but because there are so few polls, and Americans were less likely to believe the country had a racism problem.) A January 1992 Health of the Planet Survey showed 35 percent labeled racial, ethnic, or religious prejudice and discrimination to be a “very serious” problem, for example. And a 1971 Harris survey found 26 percent thought blacks were discriminated against “a great deal.” Both questions offered four options similar to the most recent polls.
Part of the increase of late certainly has to do with police shootings and what happened in Charlottesville, but it also clearly has to do with the tone and tenor of the 2016 campaign, in which Democrats accused Trump and his supporters of being racists or fomenting racism. Trump inflamed all of this by suggesting “both sides” were to blame after a white supremacist allegedly drove into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring many others.
Even Republicans are about as likely to see racism as a “big problem” (37 percent) as toward the end of the Obama administration (40 percent). The perception has spiked among Democrats, meanwhile.
Views of racism as a “big problem” were undoubtedly going to be higher after such a major event, but the die has been cast for this for the better part of two years. In large part thanks to his own rhetoric, it's now a major subplot of Trump's presidency.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.