PRINCETON, NJ -- A majority of Americans, 56%, believe that a solution to America's race-relations problem will eventually be worked out -- a figure that is roughly the same as those Gallup found in the years prior to last fall's historic election of Barack Obama as president.
Responses to this long-standing trend today are almost exactly where they were in December 1963, when Gallup first asked this question. Fifty-five percent of Americans in 1963 were hopeful that a solution to the race-relations problem would eventually be worked out. Now, some 46 years later, the "hopeful" percentage is an almost identical 56%. In short, despite all that has happened in the intervening decades, there is scarcely more hope now than there was those many years ago that the nation's race-relations situation will be solved.
Still, the similarity between attitudes in 1963 and 2009 masks a good deal of movement on this measure in the intervening years.
"Among blacks, optimism about an eventual solution to race-relations problems has decreased since last summer, from 50% to 42%."
The all-time low point for the "hopeful" alternative -- 29% -- came in October 1995, shortly after a Los Angeles jury acquitted O.J. Simpson of murder. By 1998, views that a solution to race problems would eventually be worked out had improved slightly, to 41%, and they increased still more, to 50%, by 2002. By last summer, when there was general recognition that a black man, Barack Obama, would receive the Democratic nomination for president, the percentage of Americans believing in an eventual solution to the race problem had risen to 58%.
Gallup conducted a one-night poll on Nov. 5 of last year, the day after Obama's electoral victory over John McCain. The percentage of Americans giving the positive alternative to the race-relations question in that survey jumped to 67%.
Now, about a year after Obama's election, optimism that a solution to the country's race problem will eventually be worked out has settled back down to 56%. This certainly remains higher than in a number of previous years, particularly at points in the 1990s. But the current reading is not significantly improved from the sentiment that prevailed in more recent years prior to Obama's election.
Blacks continue to give much more negative responses to this question than do whites. The majority of whites are optimistic that a solution will eventually be worked out; the majority of blacks disagree.
Among blacks, optimism about an eventual solution to race-relations problems has decreased since last summer, from 50% to 42%. In fact, the current 42% is essentially the same percentage that Gallup measured among blacks on several previous occasions.
Equal Job Opportunities?
A second Gallup trend question asks if blacks have as good a chance as whites "in your community" to get any kind of job for which they are qualified.
In the current poll, 79% of Americans say blacks have equal employment opportunities. This is technically the highest positive response measured to date, albeit just two points higher than what Gallup measured in the 1998 survey. Compared to last summer, the current figure represents an increase of eight percentage points.
There has been significant change on this measure over the last four and a half decades. In March 1963, when Gallup first asked this question, less than half of Americans (43%) said blacks had equal opportunities in terms of jobs. In the summer of that year, the percentage of Americans who perceived that there was equal opportunity for blacks dropped to the all-time low of 39%.
There was a sea change in attitudes by the time Gallup next asked the question, in 1978, with 67% of Americans in the summer of that year agreeing that blacks had equal opportunities. Sentiment remained at roughly this level through the mid-1990s, and then rose to 75% in 1997 and 77% in 1998.
Here again, as was the case for the broad question about eventual solutions to the race-relations problem, Americans' attitudes today are positive, but not dramatically or significantly higher than at various points prior to Obama's election.
Blacks are decidedly more pessimistic about equal job opportunities for blacks than are whites.
A large majority of whites say blacks have as good a chance as whites to get any type of job for which they are qualified. Blacks, on the other hand, are divided in their views. The current perceptions among blacks of the job situation for blacks represents an improvement from recent years, although at one point in 1995 -- after O.J. Simpson's acquittal -- blacks were slightly more optimistic than they are now.
A third Gallup trend asks Americans about racism against blacks in the U.S. At the beginning of last summer -- after Obama had essentially clinched the Democratic nomination -- 56% of Americans agreed that there was widespread racism against blacks in the U.S. That percentage has now dropped to 51%. The slight drop over the last 20 months has occurred to some degree among both blacks and whites.
There has been a slight uptick (from 41% to 44%) in the percentage of Americans who perceive widespread racism against whites in the U.S. Again, the overall increase reflects increases among both blacks and whites.
Despite the election of the first black president in U.S. history, Americans' optimism about a solution to the race problem in the U.S. and their views about the prevalence of racism against blacks are not substantially more positive now than they have been in previous years. In fact, optimism about race relations is now almost identical to where it was 46 years ago, when Gallup first asked the question.
Blacks remain significantly more negative than whites about their status in society and about the potential for an eventual solution to the race problem. The data do not suggest that blacks have become disproportionately more positive than whites as a result of Obama's election as president.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,521 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Oct. 16-19, 2009, including an oversample of 408 blacks, consisting of 102 interviews done as part of the random national sample and 306 interviews with blacks who had previously participated in national Gallup polls and agreed to be re-interviewed at a later date. The data from the national sample and re-interviews are combined and weighted to be demographically representative of the national adult population in the United States and to reflect the proper proportion of blacks in the overall population. For results based on this sample of national adults, the maximum margin of error is ±3 percentage points.
For results based on the sample of 408 blacks, the maximum margin of error is ±6 percentage points.
For results based on the sample of 933 non-Hispanic whites, the maximum margin of error is ±4 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.