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More Americans Say Race Relations Are Bad, and a Survey Explores Why

By Megan Thee-Brenan,

Black and white Americans experience life in profoundly and persistently different ways, according to a new Pew Research Center survey examining racial attitudes in the United States.

The telephone survey, conducted over a three-month period starting in February, is the latest in a series of polls by various organizations trying to make sense of the sharp deterioration in the country’s optimistic racial attitudes since the election of the nation’s first black president in 2008. While most African-Americans think individual racism is a bigger factor than institutional racism, they also say they have experienced unfair treatment by a number of institutions.

Using data from the Census Bureau’s monthly Current Population Survey, Pew outlines significant racial disparities across a range of economic and educational opportunities. Despite gains in the past 50 years, African-Americans are still at least twice as likely as whites to be unemployed or living in poverty. Blacks also lag behind whites in attaining college degrees, although the disparity in high school completion rates has narrowed.

The inequalities in the life experiences of blacks and whites are also evident in each group’s opinions about racial attitudes in the United States. Here are several striking findings from the Pew poll.

Roots of Discrimination

Two-thirds of Americans questioned by Pew think individual discrimination is a bigger problem than discrimination that is built into American laws and institutions. While most whites agree, blacks are divided. Still, majorities of African-Americans think that blacks are treated less fairly than whites in a number of institutions including the workplace, financial institutions and the criminal justice system.

Race Relations in the U.S.

One hundred days after President Obama’s inauguration, a New York Times/CBS News poll found 59 percent of African Americans and 65 percent of white Americans rated race relations in the United States as generally good. Pew’s new poll included the long-term Times/CBS question and found that 61 percent of blacks and 45 percent of whites now say race relations are generally bad.

Over all, the public is divided, with 48 percent rating race relations as bad and 44 percent rating them as good. This signals a modest improvement since July’s Times/CBS poll, which found a 57 percent majority calling race relations bad and just 37 percent good.

Experience With Discrimination

Pew interviewed a large sample of black Americans, 1,004, which allowed for study across a wide range of demographic groups. Strong majorities of African-Americans, regardless of their gender, age or education, say they have personally experienced discrimination or have been treated unfairly because of their race or ethnicity.

In fact, blacks were more than four times as likely as whites to say they had been treated suspiciously or as if they were not smart in the past year because of their race or ethnicity.

Black Lives Matter

The Black Lives Matter movement was founded in the summer of 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida. The movement has organized demonstrations to protest the killings of unarmed African-Americans by police officers. About three-fourths of the public have heard of Black Lives Matter, but only 61 percent say they understand the goals of the movement, and 53 percent support it. Few Americans think the movement will help blacks achieve equality.

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