This week a New York Times/CBS News Poll found that nearly 60 percent of Americans, heavy majorities of both black and white alike, “think race relations are generally bad, and that nearly four in 10 think the situation is getting worse.” This is a marked contrast from November 2008 when two-thirds of Americans believed that race relations were good.
The Times reported on Thursday, “The swings in attitude have been particularly striking among African-Americans. During Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign, nearly 60 percent of blacks said race relations were generally bad, but that number was cut in half shortly after he won. It has now soared to 68 percent, the highest level of discontent among blacks during the Obama years and close to the numbers recorded in the aftermath of the riots that followed the 1992 acquittal of Los Angeles police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King.”
In our view, what is happening here is easily explainable and, while conservatives have lumped criticism on the President that he has become “the divider in chief,” what is actually occurring is much more basic.
First of all, part of what has happened here is that for blacks the excitement and enthusiasm of the nation’s first black president has given way to reality. In the days and weeks following the 2008 election of President Obama, many media and black leaders believed that this was a sign that the world really had changed. The black community never really believed that they would see a black president in their lifetimes, and when they did they were hopeful of change.
That hope faded as many of the attacks on President Obama, which were largely partisan and ideological in nature, began to take on a racial component. Claims that the President was not a natural born US Citizen, that he was Muslim, and so on, had racial components. Those partisan attacks mixed with true racist attacks to form a backlog that created the perception that race relationships were declining.
Second and perhaps more fundamentally is the notion of the revolution of rising expectations. This borrows from other theories, but basically it is the idea that revolutions occur when things reach their nadir, as people become demoralized, and when expectations then rise faster than reality.
In this country, optimism surrounding the election of Barack Obama quickly gave way to reality. You had racially charged partisan attacks, and a series of highly publicized incidents of racial profiling and officer-involved shootings that quickly showed people that their hope for change was fading.
This explains why blacks, who often had to face the reality of race relations in their daily lives, had a much more negative view of race relations than whites in 2008. However, in the glow of Obama’s victory, that number was nearly cut in half, only to rise again to even higher levels of discontent in the reality of American race relations.
For white Americans, our view is that their newer view of race relations is a dose of reality. Unlike blacks who have to live with constant reminders of inequality and race relations, whites are more insulated. As a result they have often had a better view of race relations than their black counterparts.
The series of incidents that have occurred in this country, starting with the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, continued to the death of Michael Brown, the riots in Baltimore, and more recently with the shooting in Charleston has forced whites to rip off their bandaids, so to speak.
There is, of course, a divide between how blacks and whites perceive these events. In 2013, a PEW Research poll found that 48 percent of whites said a lot of progress has been made since 1963, compared with 32 percent of blacks.
The police issue is a huge divide. In a survey shortly after the Ferguson shooting, 80 percent of blacks said the incident raised important issues about race, compared with 37 percent of whites. Blacks have far less confidence that police treat the races equally. Seventy-one percent of whites expressed a great deal or fair amount of confidence in local police to treat blacks and whites equally, compared with just 36 percent of blacks.
There is nothing new about that – the gaps were similar when the question was asked in 2007 and 2009.
However, the recent Charleston shooting shows another divide. The Times notes, “Despite the perception that the shootings inspired a moment of empathy and reconciliation, the poll suggests that attitudes toward the flag remain deeply divided between whites and blacks, and not just in the South.”
The Confederate flag is seen by a majority of whites (57 percent) as an emblem of Southern pride. However, a majority of blacks (68 percent) argue it is a symbol of racism. The view that the flag represents heritage more than bigotry was shared by 65 percent of white Southerners, including three-fourths of white Southern men.
Our view, however, is that none of this is a sign that race relations are getting worse. These incidents are not increasing – rather it is simply that the media has chosen to report more on these incidents. This goes to one of the strongest powers that the media actually have over public opinion.
Study after study in the social sciences have shown that the media slant does not have a strong impact over the views that people take. The coverage does not have an effect on whether people take a positive or negative view of a particular police action.
That is largely due to the fact that most people who are watching the news have strong filters of partisanship and ideology. Those with weaker filters are much less likely to watch and pay attention to news coverage.
Instead, what a series of experimental trials has shown is that the more a story line is shown on the news, the more important the public views that issue. So if the media reports on a bunch of officer-involved shootings, the public will see that as a more important issue.
That is what is happening here – the public suddenly sees Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and now Sandra Bland and it sees the issue of police conduct and race as extremely important. However, the media coverage is not impacting how people see these events – so whites are more supportive of the police than blacks.
Our view then is that race relations are not getting worse – these police incidents have been happening every year. It is simply that right now the media is covering them and so it is harder for people to ignore the reality that is out there.
We have come a long way on race in the last 50 years, but we still have issues that need to be addressed. They are not issues that are simple and they are not nearly as “black and white” as the issues of legal segregation were prior to the 1960s. That makes it far more difficult to get to the root of the problem.
—David M. Greenwald reporting