‘Worried’ About Race Relations? You’re Answering the Wrong Question

A new Gallup poll reveals the highest level of concern among U.S. residents in 15 years.

Antiracism protesters gathered outside the New York City studios of ‘Good Morning America’ in March. (Photo: Thos Robinson/Getty Images)

Apr 13, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

In 2008, some Americans saw the election of Barack Obama as the harbinger of a post-racial era in United States history. MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews is infamous for having said after Obama’s 2010 State of the Union address that Obama “is post-racial, by all appearances. I forgot he was black tonight for an hour.”

But having a black man in the White House—even one that some folks “forgot” was black—didn’t stop Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, or Freddie Gray from being killed. It didn’t stop a white supremacist from shooting nine members of a Charleston church last summer, and it didn’t close the racial wealth gap or education gap across the nation.

Now, as a Gallup poll released Monday reveals, it seems the bubble of racial nirvana has burst for a record number of Americans.

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When it comes to race relations, 35 percent of Americans say they feel a “great deal” of worry, which represents an increase of 17 percentage points since 2014, and the highest percentage since 2001 when Gallup first began asking about it.

“Concern about race relations in the U.S. has risen during an 18-month period marked by a series of deaths of unarmed blacks at the hands of police officers. These deaths sparked major, sometimes violent, protests and fueled the nationwide rise of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement,” wrote Gallup as an explanation for the jump, in a report accompanying the poll’s release.

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This most recent poll also said that although black and white Americans are more worried about race relations these days, there’s still a chasm between the two groups. A full 53 percent of black folks said they are worried, up from 31 percent in a previous poll. Meanwhile, only 27 percent of white people are worried, an increase from 14 percent.

Call it the “Ferguson effect,” Phillipe Copeland, a professor at the Boston University School of Social Work, told TakePart. The shift in public opinion has been widely observed, but Harvard-educated Copeland believes that by focusing on “race relations,” Gallup is asking the wrong question.

Instead of asking people to ponder if they are concerned about race relations, as Gallup did, Copeland suggests more provocative questions: “Do you believe that black people are treated differently because they’re black?” “Do you believe that’s still happening?” “Who do you feel is responsible for changing that?”

“The term race relations is not a useful term. If anything it actually perpetuates white supremacy because it obscures how power operates,” said Copeland, whose work focuses on ending white supremacy and helping communities recover from its consequences. “We need to stop talking about white supremacy as if it’s some sort of cosmic, supernatural thing. People created this problem, and people can solve it—and I don’t mean 1,000 years from now.”

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“We have a whole race-relations industry now,” said Copeland, with some companies spending millions on diversity trainings that produce little change in hiring and promotions. “People spend a lot of time talking about this, as if the problem is just black and white people don’t understand their different hair textures—if we just had one more conversation about black women’s hair or one more conversation about who gets to use the N-word, then somehow the world would be better, and that’s so ludicrous,” said Copeland.

Talking about racism in America as if it’s a problem “in which two sides have mutual grievances that are equally valid and we just need to kinda hug it out is completely ahistorical and completely apolitical,” added Copeland.

Last summer after the church massacre in Charleston, Washington Post commentator Eugene Robinson wrote that America needs solutions that “go beyond speeches and symbols.”

Robinson suggested that “law enforcement should subject white racist organizations to the same surveillance and scrutiny as groups devoted to jihad. Governments at all levels should enforce fair housing and employment laws as vigorously as they enforce the Patriot Act. Police departments and court systems must be compelled to administer justice equally—with African Americans, too, considered innocent until proven guilty.”

“Our society will end racism when it stops being racist. Not a minute sooner,” concluded Robinson.

Copeland agrees that the way to end racial inequality isn’t unknown. “What we have needed to do to solve this problem hasn’t changed since emancipation. We don’t need any more studies. We don’t need any more commissions. We know what we need to do. The question is, why do we not do it? And one of the reasons that we don’t do it is because of euphemisms like ‘race relations,’ which is in itself a distraction.”

Despite the spike in the percentage of Americans who are worried about race relations, Gallup noted that the topic is still low on the list of things Americans are worried about. Health care, the economy, and crime and violence were the only three issues that more than half of poll respondents cited as worries. But Copeland said Gallup’s decision to ask them to rank issues is “deeply problematic” because “it implies that there are these problems that are somehow race-free problems, and then there are the racial problems.”

For example, with people of color more likely to be stuck in low-wage jobs, less likely to get funding for a tech start-up, and having to whiten their résumés, it’s impossible to separate race from a conversation about the economy, said Copeland.

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Instead of ranking issues, Copeland suggests that pollsters could offer some possible solutions and have people rank those. “What do you think would be most helpful: reparations, education?”

Who should be making changes? “Is it the government, the black community? Is it white Americans, some combination?” suggested Copeland.

Gallup also omitted the viewpoints of Latinos and Asian Americans, which given the increased diversity of the nation, presents a binary black-white view of race in America. That’s problematic, said Copeland, given recent attempts to pit Asian American students against their black and Latino peers in the debate over affirmative action in college admissions.

Still, Copeland suggested that the poll could be useful to both policy makers and politicians because the results are evidence that Americans are concerned about race and that there’s a role for government to do something about it. The data should also be encouraging to activists as evidence that they’re changing the public’s perceptions, similar to what Occupy Wall Street did in terms of the economy, he said.

As for the nation’s first black president, “Obama’s like the Mr. Rogers of race,” said Copeland. “The reaction people have to Mr. Rogers—for a lot of people that’s the reaction to Obama. Psychologically, he just makes you feel good about race.” Although the days of Obama’s beer summit are long past, “many Americans still want to ask, ‘Please won’t you be my neighbor?’ That’s his racial philosophy in a nutshell,” said Copeland. “And then we wonder why, toward the end of his presidency, we have a poll like this come out.”