Race Relations in the Obama Era

NEW YORK With debate about the motives of Barack Obama’s detractors putting the issue of race back in the news, a new Economist/YouGov poll looks at how Americans view race relations these days. And, as befits the complexity of the topic, the responses are a very mixed bag.

One question in the survey, conducted earlier this week, asked respondents how they think race relations in the U.S. have changed (if at all) since Obama became president. A large majority (62 percent) said they’ve stayed about the same, but those saying race relations have gotten better were far outnumbered by those saying relations have gotten worse (26 percent vs. 12 percent).

The “worse” vote was slightly higher among black respondents (28 percent) than among whites (25 percent), but it was higher still among the poll’s Hispanic respondents (32 percent). On the other hand, Hispanics were also the most likely to say race relations have gotten better since Obama became president (17 percent vs. 11 percent of black and white respondents alike).

If relatively few respondents believe race relations have improved this year, perhaps it’s because a majority didn’t think things were so bad to begin with. Sixty percent of those polled said they think race relations in the U.S. are generally “good,” vs. 40 percent saying they’re generally “bad.”

As has been the case in other surveys on this question, white respondents were more likely than their black counterparts to describe race relations as good (62 percent vs. 42 percent) and correspondingly less likely to rate them as bad (38 percent vs. 58 percent). Among Hispanic respondents, 53 percent said they regard race relations as generally good and 47 percent as generally bad. Household income was a point of division on this issue, with 70 percent of respondents in the above-$100,000 cohort saying they think race relations are generally good, vs. 61 percent of those in the $40,000-100,000 bracket and 55 percent of the under-$40,000s.

Elsewhere in the poll, one intriguing question asked, “Is there anyone you know personally who opposes President Obama mostly because he is black?” Overall, 28 percent said they do and 57 percent said they don’t, with the other 15 percent unsure. There was no big difference in the “yes” vote along lines of race and ethnicity, but black respondents had a markedly higher “not sure” tally (23 percent) than either whites (14 percent) or Hispanics (9 percent).

When respondents were asked whether they agree with Jimmy Carter’s statement that much of the “intensely demonstrated animosity” toward Obama is motivated by the fact of his race, 34 percent said they do and 47 percent said they don’t, with the rest unsure. Black respondents were much more likely to agree with Carter (70 percent) than were whites (29 percent) or Hispanics (46 percent).

Age was also a dividing line on this question. While 40 percent of the poll’s 18-29-year-olds said they agree with Carter, the number fell to 34 percent among the 30-64-year-olds and to 26 percent among those 65-plus.