A protestor holds a black lives matter t-shirt during a "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" demonstration in front of the San Francisco Hall of Justice on December 18, 2014 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Half of Americans -- exactly 50 percent -- say racism is a "big problem" in this country, according to a fascinating new Pew poll released today. That's up an astonishing 17 points since the last time pollsters asked this question in 2010. And it represents the highest level of concern about racism in this country in at least 20 years.

Pew Research Center
Pew Research Center

So what's changed? In a word: Ferguson. And of course, everything that's followed since. Over at The Fix, my colleague Scott Clement sums it up concisely: "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."

The Pew numbers reflect some of this. Americans are divided on the extent of the racism problem in this country. 73 percent of blacks call it a big problem, compared to 44 percent of whites. Democrats (61 percent) are also considerably more likely to see a major problem than Republicans (41 percent).

Of course, Pew notes that in 2010 only 17 percent of Republicans called racism a big problem. After a brief flirtation with the notion of a "post-racial" society after Barack Obama was elected in 2008, Americans of all stripes are coming back to the realization that racism is a problem with roots that go far deeper than laws that explicitly discriminate. As a country we carry racial baggage that makes its weight felt everywhere from our Google searches to our political discourse.

Attitudes are changing, however slowly. But there's still a lot of work to do.