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Racism Edges Up Again as Most Important U.S. Problem

Racism Edges Up Again as Most Important U.S. Problem

by Rebecca Riffkin

Story Highlights

  • Nine percent say racism most important U.S. problem
  • Up from 3% in June, but similar to increases in recent months
  • Economy, government remain most frequently mentioned problems

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The percentage of Americans naming race relations or racism as the most important problem facing the country increased to 9% this month, up from 3% in June. Mentions of race relations as a top problem have risen and fallen multiple times over the past seven months as racially charged events have dominated and then faded from the news cycle.

Recent Trend for

Americans' mentions of racism and race relations as the most important problem facing the country spiked in December 2014 to 13% amid protests over high-profile incidents of police brutality toward blacks in Staten Island, New York, Ferguson, Missouri, and other places across the U.S. This was the highest figure since May 1992 when 15% of Americans said racism was the top problem after the verdict in the Rodney King case sparked riots in many parts of the U.S.

For more than a decade prior to December 2014, no more than 5% of Americans had named racism or race relations as the top problem facing the U.S., with the figure often measuring 0%. Still, mentions of racism and race relations in recent months are far below the all-time high of 52% during the civil rights era and race riots in the 1960s.

Following the sharp increase in mentions of race relations in December, the percentage naming this issue fell to 3% in February. Similarly, in May 2015, mentions increased to 8% amid the riots in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died in police custody, but dipped back down to 3% in June.

The most recent results are from a Gallup poll conducted July 8-12, a few weeks after nine people were shot at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, which sparked a national debate about the role of the Confederate flag. During the same week as Gallup's recent polling, South Carolina's government voted to remove the flag from its state Capitol grounds.

Economy, Government Remain Most Mentioned Problems

Despite the uptick in mentions of race relations in July, the economy in general and dissatisfaction with the government remain the most frequently mentioned problems, with 13% of Americans naming each.

Most Important Problems Facing the U.S.

Mentions of immigration and the federal budget deficit also rank high. Six percent of Americans mentioned unemployment or jobs, the lowest percentage to mention this issue since January 2015. At points over the last few years, mentions of unemployment and jobs as the most important problem have been as high as 39%.

As a whole, however, Americans are divided on the most important problem facing the country. No single issue is named by more than 13% of Americans, with most issues named by less than 5%. This lack of a national focus on a dominant problem may be why many long-term issues, such as the environment and education, rank among the top problems.

Bottom Line

As many Americans debated the role of the Confederate flag in early July, an increased percentage cited racism and race relations as the top problems facing the country. On average, mentions of these issues have been higher in the past year than in at least a decade. However, the recent trend has been marked by short-lived spikes in response to a major racial event, followed by a decline after the news receded. The major difference, then, appears to be the frequent number of race-related incidents that have made news since last summer. As a whole, though, Americans are divided on what problem is most important in the U.S.

Historical data on these questions are available in Gallup Analytics.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted July 8-12, 2015, with a random sample of 1,009 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.

View complete question responses and trends.

Learn more about how Gallup Poll Social Series works.

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