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Opinion New data shows both a hopeful and worrying portrait of race in America

National Guard soldiers next to a statue of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. inside the Capitol on Jan. 13. (Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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Monday is the day America celebrates the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It’s fitting, therefore, to use the occasion to think about race in today’s America. The latest data from the Democracy Fund paints both a hopeful and sobering picture.

The most frightening data involves perceptions of racial discrimination today. More than 56 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, more than 80 percent of Black Americans still believe they face either a great deal or a lot of discrimination because of their race. The nation as a whole is split on this question; 50 percent of Americans say Black people face a great deal or a lot of racial discrimination and 50 percent believe they face a moderate amount, a little, or none at all. The parties are sharply divided over this question too, with about 80 percent of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents in the first camp and about the same proportion of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents in the second camp. This sharp divergence in perceptions is one of the driving forces in politics today.

These viewpoints carry over into a host of other views about racial discrimination. Nearly 75 percent of Black people believe they have gotten “less than they deserve” over the past few years, and less than a quarter believe that they can work their way up without “special favors” like past White ethnic minorities. Democrats largely agree with this view while Republicans do not. Black people and Democrats also agree that “generations of slavery and discrimination” still make it harder for Black people to advance, while Republicans do not. Black people and Democrats also agree that the summer’s events in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd were mostly peaceful, although interestingly, Democrats and very liberal voters were much likelier than Black Americans themselves to say this. Republicans largely thought they were mostly violent, a view shared by a plurality of independents.

A more hopeful picture, however, is painted when people are asked how much discrimination they have personally experienced. Only 38 percent of Black people say they themselves have faced either a great deal or a lot of discrimination. The parties are not divided on this question: Both Republicans and Democrats overwhelmingly say they have only experienced a little or no discrimination at all. There is also less division on the question whether racial minority groups “have mostly fair opportunities” to advance. Trump supporters largely think they do, as might be expected, but two-thirds of anti-Trump Republicans and a plurality of anti-Trump independents also think they do. Even 28 percent of anti-Trump Democrats think racial minorities have mostly fair chances of moving up today.

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Americans’ views of the nation’s Founders were more mixed. Asked if these men were “villains or heroes,” 54 percent of Americans said they were heroes and only 13 percent said villains. Views among Black people were more negative, with 37 percent saying they were villains and 20 percent saying they were heroes, and 42 percent saying they are not sure. More than 80 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents said they were heroes, a view shared by only about 38 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaners. More than 40 percent of those groups and independents said they were “not sure” how they would characterize the Founders. Very liberal voters were even more ambivalent; nearly half said they were “not sure” and 25 percent said the Founders were villains.

These views suggest there is still an opportunity for dialogue to help heal — or at least ameliorate — our nation’s race-related wounds. There has been a strong push from certain quarters, such as the New York Times’ 1619 Project, to claim that racial discrimination was essential to American identity and that our founding principles were fatally flawed. That view found its outward expression in the toppling of statues during the summer and the efforts to rename monuments honoring revered figures such as Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. It’s clear that the large majority of Americans still honor or respect our nation’s Founders and their achievements.

It’s also clear that the existence of slavery and the long post-Civil War legacy of race discrimination tarnishes their memory and accomplishments. Even as most Black people recognize that they personally face much less discrimination today than in the past, the long arm of that past still grips today’s politics. That past affects how people see the present, especially in cases of police brutality and misconduct.

King’s famous “I Have a Dreamspeech asked for a nation that would judge people by the content of their characters rather than the colors of their skin. Realizing that dream has been much more difficult than most Americans imagined. The realities of racial progress and discrimination co-exist today. We must all keep our eyes on King’s prize and recognize that we cannot “satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”

Read more:

Colbert I. King: Martin Luther King gave his life fighting the same forces stirred by Trump

The Post’s View: Has America finally heard Martin Luther King Jr.?

David Von Drehle: After the Capitol riot, remembering the power of nonviolence

E.J. Dionne Jr.: 2021’s call to Reconstruction

Cristina Beltrán: To understand Trump’s support, we must think in terms of multiracial Whiteness

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