How Divided America Is On Race

When President Barack Obama was first elected in 2008, most Americans said that race relations would improve, according to the Pew Research Center. But a new Newsweek poll shows that only 32 percent of Americans say that race relations have actually gotten better since President Obama’s election; nearly 60 percent say race relations have remained the same or gotten worse.

One of the biggest sources of disagreement: whether African Americans are discriminated against. Both blacks and whites by-and-large agree that racial stereotyping is still a problem in the U.S. But African Americans are much more likely to say that they don’t have equal opportunities when it comes to jobs, affordable housing and treatment by the criminal justice system. Meanwhile, most whites — about 70 to 80 percent — say that African Americans receive equal treatment and have equal access.

Since President Obama’s election, there has been a decline in explicit racial attitudes, such as overt racism. At the same time, there has been a substantial uptick in racial anxiety among white Americans. That’s according to John a. powell, executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, who studies racial attitudes. Powell cited the birthers movement as one example of racial anxiety.

It is no surprise that race still divides America; it has divided us since the first settlers landed on our shores. (Even in 1969, in the wake of landmark civil-rights legislation, 59 percent of blacks told Newsweek that the pace of change was too slow.) And it is no surprise that African-Americans are feeling particularly pessimistic after a recession that drove black unemployment as high as 16.7 percent. The surprise is that one of the most encouraging signs of racial progress in our nation’s history, the election of an African-American president, now seems to be deepening our divisions rather than diminishing them. But perhaps that shouldn’t be so shocking either. What the Newsweek poll reveals—and what a review of recent history reiterates—is that Obama didn’t create the misunderstandings and resentments that complicate a controversy like Trayvon Martin’s death. He’s just the spark that sets them off.

In other words, it’s not him. It’s us. Despite the powerful symbolism of Obama’s election, blacks and whites are still living in two different worlds.

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