Guest Editorial: A year for racial progress
Many Americans of a certain age, black and white and brown alike, doubted they’d live long enough to see an African-American elected president. Barack Obama’s historic, if somewhat surprising, achievement was likely a decisive factor in a January 2009 poll showing that 77 percent of respondents believed race relations in the United States were “very good” or “fairly good,” the highest point ever in NBC News/Wall Street Journal surveys on the subject.
That was before Trayvon Martin, of course. And Michael Brown. And Eric Garner. And Freddie Gray. Before the violence in Ferguson. And Baltimore. And Berkeley. And Charleston.
After those far less proud moments — and many more like them — in recent years, Americans are much less positive about race relations than they were after Obama’s first inauguration. Only 34 percent think relations are very good or fairly good, according to a survey this month by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal. The percentage is the lowest since October 1995, following the divisive trial of accused murderer O.J. Simpson.
“This is a very sad chart,” Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm that conducted the poll for the news organizations. The decline began in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted in Martin’s shooting death in Florida. “It’s a reminder … what a continued rupture point in our country race is,” McInturff said.
As in past surveys on the topic, there were notable differences in perceptions by race and ethnicity. Twenty-six percent of African-Americans, 33 percent of whites and 38 percent of Hispanics said they believe race relations are very good or fairly good today.
The deaths of unarmed black men — and their killers’ subsequent trials or lack thereof — clearly are a factor in those perceptions. In the survey a year ago, three-fourths of African-American respondents said the grand jury decision not to charge the Ferguson police officer who killed Brown, hurt their faith in the criminal justice system.
That view was shared by only one-fourth of whites. A similar schism emerged around a grand jury’s decision not to indict police officers involved in Garner’s chokehold death on Staten Island.
Today, black men are seven times more likely than white men to die by police gunfire while unarmed, a recent Washington Post analysis found. The reaction to that statistic varies by race — and, apparently, political perspective. This month’s survey indicated that 22 percent of Democrats considered the debate about the use of force by police one of the most personally important news events of 2015, compared to 7 percent of Republicans.
Still, there are signs of hope amid the turmoil.
Student protests at the University of Missouri-Columbia this year drew attention to long-running problems with race relations on campus and prompted major changes in leadership.
Not everyone was happy with the outcome, of course. GOP front-runner Donald Trump, hardly a unifying force in race relations, called the decision by top officials to resign “disgusting” and said “they set something in motion that’s going to be a disaster for a long period of time.”
The June 17 mass murder of nine worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., for which a 21-year-old white supremacist has been charged, shocked the nation. The public response did little to advance the discussion about gun control or improving mental health care, but it did prompt a long-overdue debate in the South about its blithe embrace of Confederate symbols and their destructive effect on race relations.
As Confederate flags and other misplaced homages were removed from public places, a renewed interest in fostering better race relations in the South appeared to take hold, at least in most places.
Law enforcement officials are working to improve tracking the causes of police shootings nationwide. The FBI is expanding the information it gathers on violent police encounters, a move that should shed more light on the disproportionate number of cases where unarmed black men are killed.
This summer, Obama said he cautions young people not to overstate the nation’s struggle with race relations: “Do not say that nothing’s changed when it comes to race in America — unless you’ve lived through being a black man in the 1950s, or ‘60s, or ‘70s. It is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly during my lifetime and yours, and that opportunities have opened up, and that attitudes have changed.”
But, he continued, “What is also true is that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives — you know, that casts a long shadow. And that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on. We’re not cured of it.”
The cure remains elusive, and — at least for now — it appears the public’s confidence in progress is wavering. But, as Obama points out and as his presidency illustrates, historic changes have occurred, and they remain within our reach today. But American leaders must seek to unite, not to divide.