Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) encouraged people to share meals with families of other races. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Reporter

On the 50th anniversary of the death of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., a Republican lawmaker said the nation's ongoing racial tension is in part rooted in how segregated much of Americans' lives remain.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) — who with Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) co-founded “Solution Sunday,” which challenged families to have lunch or dinner with people of other races — wrote Wednesday in a Fox News column:

“The real national conversation on race will not occur at a rally, a big event, or in the media, since in a crowd or on TV we can talk about each other, but not really to each other. I believe that “national conversations” are really millions of individual conversations with family and friends, best shared over a meal, in our homes.

If it seems too simple and obvious, let me ask you this question: Has your family ever shared a meal at your home with a family of another race? If not, why not? To say it simply, we will never get all our issues on the table until we get our feet under the same table. Demonstrating to our kids and grandkids genuine friendships across racial lines is much more powerful than words.”

Distance between the races started long before the death of the King. Segregation created systems where people of different races lived in different neighborhoods, were educated at different schools and worshiped at different churches — and while it's no longer legal, it's still a systemic issue that exists today. When it comes to schools, racial segregation is actually getting worse.

The Washington Post's Christopher Ingraham reported in 2014 that data from the Public Religion Research Institute provides some answers to Lankford's questions and reveals just how isolated by race many Americans social circles are.

PRRI's data shows that a full 75 percent of whites have “entirely white social networks without any minority presence.” The same holds true for slightly less than two-thirds of black Americans.

The implication of these findings is that when we talk about race in our personal lives, we are by and large discussing it with people who look like us, Ingraham said.

This lack of interaction surely has an effect on how race relations are viewed by Americans. And for some, the current political climate has made improving the relationship between races challenging.

Nearly a year into Trump’s presidency, 6 in 10 Americans say his election has led to worse race relations, according to a Pew report on the subject. This view is connected to Trump displaying a pattern of making comments and implementing policies that critics say disadvantage black Americans and Latinos. And reports that many white Americans backed Trump because of their own anxiety about the country's increasing diversity suggest that many of the issues King fought to dismantle years ago remain in place.

To be fair, pessimism about race relations in the United States predates Trump's election. Public views of race relations reached a high after Barack Obama's inauguration, when 66 percent of Americans said they were generally good, according to Pew.  But public views plummeted in 2014 and 2015, following high-profile police shootings of unarmed black men. In May 2015, 61 percent of Americans considered race relations generally bad, with many blaming Obama for the level of divisiveness.

The fact is that most people — 56 percent — hold negative views on race relations today. And less than 40 percent say relations are generally favorable. Increasing interaction could improve that, as Lankford suggests. But for race relations to improve in the eyes of many black people, white and black Americans don't simply need to hang out more; they need to work together to close the racial and economic gaps.