Check It Out: Rating of Black-White relations at new low—is pessimism warranted?

by J. Pharoah Doss, For New Pittsburgh Courier

Recently, USA Today’s Mike Freeman interviewed tennis superstar Serena Williams. At the end, Freeman asked Williams if she felt optimistic about the future of race relations in America. Freeman asked because the current Gallup poll revealed positive ratings of relations between Black and Whites in the United States were at their lowest point in the 21st century.

Williams replied, “Is that a trick question?”

Freedman responded, “No, I’m not trying to trick you.”

Williams said, “I’m answering your question.”

Freeman didn’t intend to be tricky, but that’s the nature of Black-White relations in America.

In 1990, The Christian Science Monitor ran a story by Burns W. Roper called, Race Relations in America: Despite some well-publicized hate crimes and episodes of tension, racial harmony is growing. Roper stated the greatest contribution of public opinion polls is that it allows us to assess the validity of “common knowledge,” and with respect to race relations in America, the polls revealed how wrong “common knowledge” is. From what is said in the news media today, we would think the state of race relations in America had deteriorated to a post-war low. But that is far from the truth.

A few years later, events such as the Rodney King beating, the acquittal of the White police officers that assaulted King, the L.A. riots, the beating of White trucker Reginald Denny by four Black men, and the O.J. Simpson not guilty verdict, caused public opinion to drastically change.

In October 1995 a Gallup poll revealed 68 percent of Americans said Black-White relations would always be a problem in the United States.

How long did that pessimistic view last?

In 2001, Gallup reported 70 percent of U.S. adults rated Black-White relations positively. Between 2001 and 2011 the racially charged events that intensified the previous decade didn’t repeat. Instead, in 2008, the United States elected its first Black president, and by 2013, Gallup revealed that 70 percent of U.S. adults still rated Black-White relations positively.

Things intensified in 2014 after a White police officer shot and killed an unarmed Black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, which led to riots and national recognition of a movement called Black Lives Matter. That same year Ta-Nehisi Coates published “A Case for Reparations,” and the national discourse concerning race shifted from praising the Black presidency and progress to questioning what America owes Black people for slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination, and redlining.

The 2015 Gallup poll revealed the positive rating of Black-White relations dropped from 70 percent to 47 percent.
In the early 1990s the racially charged events that took place made the public pessimistic about Black-White race relations, but optimism grew with each year past the midpoint of that decade. Post-2015, history didn’t have the opportunity to repeat due to the racially charged presidency of Donald Trump, the racially charged national discourse that ensued from 2016 to 2020, the national riots that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the January 6, 2021, invasion of the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters after Trump lost re-election.

Freeman followed his interview with Serena Williams with an editorial in the USA Today and apologized to Williams.

He wrote, “I’m the idiot, Serena, my bad. With her response, Williams was indeed answering the question. She was saying no, sorry, but I’m not optimistic about future race relations in the country.” Freeman added, “There was another poignant moment when Williams said, ‘America was built on something very old. Trying to change it in one generation is very optimistic.’ In many ways, this is the very definition of systemic racism.”

Other news outlets were just as over-the-top as Freeman when they reported on the recent Gallup poll and emphasized the fact that in 2001, 70 percent of U.S. adults rated Black-White relations positively, but, in 2021, the rate has dramatically decreased to 42 percent.

However, if the recent Gallup poll is compared to the 2015 poll, and not the poll taken at the turn of the century, the percentage points dropped from 47 to 42. That’s a one-point drop per year over the last five years.

That’s actually a reason for optimism considering the anomaly of Trump and the racially charged events that followed.

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