More than a year into the Trump administration, a plurality of Americans think racism in the United States is getting worse, according to a new poll. But a significant number still don’t think it is a major problem — at least not a problem they care to discuss.
As each week brings more news stories about race relations, large percentages of Americans are realizing that issues that some thought had been settled decades ago are still very much alive.
The NBC News and Survey Monkey poll was released the same week that ABC canceled its “Roseanne” reboot after its star, Roseanne Barr, tweeted racist comments; an upcoming book by an adviser to Barack Obama revealed that the former president's vision of America was shaken by Donald Trump’s election; and a Harvard study dramatically increased the death toll linked to Hurricane Maria, raising questions about whether the Trump administration's handling of the disaster in Puerto Rico had racial undertones.
While much attention is being paid this anniversary year to the strides that have been made 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson greenlit the Kerner Commission to study race in the United States, the majority of Americans — more than 6 in 10 — said racism remains a major problem in our society. And more people chose race over religion, gender and class as the biggest cause of division, according to the poll.
But views on the prevalence of racism in the United States vary. Nearly a third — 30 percent — of Americans say that racism is not a major problem, although they agree that racism exists. The poll did not release results on how answers varied based on the politics, gender and race of those surveyed, but past polls have shown that black and white people, as well as Republicans and Democrats, view this issue differently. Liberals and black people are much more likely to view racism as a major issue in the country than do white people and conservatives.
Other reports have suggested that individuals’ views on race are very much shaped by where they live, the ethnic and racial makeup of their social circles, and other issues connected to exposure. And only weeks after high-profile racial discrimination incidents involving Starbucks, Waffle House and other corporations, 1 in 4 people said that racial discrimination against blacks was either “not so serious” or “not serious at all.”
One finding in the poll that's worth noting is how rarely some Americans discuss race issues. Nearly half of the respondents — 47 percent — said race relations never or rarely come up in conversations with family and friends. This means that while the majority of Americans think race relations are worsening, far fewer are discussing it with the people closest to them. It's hard to imagine being able to work toward a solution to a problem that large percentages of people won’t even discuss.
The survey did not ask people why they think race relations are getting worse. Critics of identity politics have argued that ongoing conversations about race further heighten the tension between the races. Many others have pointed to President Trump's rhetoric as a major cause of the increase in racial tension in the United States.
The poll also did not address whether the respondents are hopeful that race relations will improve. That number could be telling in terms of how Americans view the responsibilities of government, business and even themselves in fixing what they clearly see as a problem.