On Monday, the Pew Research Center released a fascinating and expansive report on the state of race relations in America. It serves as a stark reminder that although events like this insane and historic presidential election, continuing terrorist attacks and global shocks like Brexit overtake news cycles, the issue of racial inequality is just as urgent as ever.
2015 was the year of Black Lives Matter. Discussion of police interactions with minority communities; institutions and interpersonal racism; and “safe spaces” dominated popular literature, film, television, talks shows and newspaper column inches. It seemed everyone, everywhere, was talking about race in some capacity.
Now, at least in the media, the heat around the subject has cooled. The media has moved on. There are new stories to chase. There are new awards to win.
But the issue of racial inequality — as a lived experience — remains unaltered, and many in fact believe that it’s actually getting worse.
Racial inequality is not a trendy issue; it is an entrenched issue.
A year, or even two, of intense focus does not provide sufficient alteration of a condition in a country that has developed over centuries.
And so it is in this simmering wake of unfinished business that the Pew report lands.
It is the kind of report that demands more space that I can give it in a column, but please allow me to quote it here liberally, both the optimistic and pessimistic components of it, and to weigh in on it to the degree that I feel I must.
It is no surprise that whites and black would see racial issues and barriers to racial equality differently, or that differences would be manifest in the ideological divide between Democrats and Republicans.
What is more worrisome is how far apart whites and blacks are in their optimism about race relations improving. As the report puts it:
An overwhelming majority of blacks (88 percent) say the country needs to continue making changes for blacks to have equal rights with whites, but 43 percent are skeptical that such changes will ever occur. An additional 42 percent of blacks believe that the country will eventually make the changes needed for blacks to have equal rights with whites, and just 8 percent say the country has already made the necessary changes.
A much lower share of whites (53 percent) say the country still has work to do for blacks to achieve equal rights with whites, and only 11 percent express doubt that these changes will come. Four in 10 whites believe the country will eventually make the changes needed for blacks to have equal rights, and about the same share (38 percent) say enough changes have already been made.
This gulf in optimism is incredibly troubling. What happens to a people when they stop believing, stop hoping, stop trusting that a concerted effort toward improvement will bear fruit?
Part of the problem here is that white and black people have such vastly divergent views about the lived black experience in America. According to the report:
By large margins, blacks are more likely than whites to say black people are treated less fairly in the workplace (a difference of 42 percentage points), when applying for a loan or mortgage (41 points), in dealing with the police (34 points), in the courts (32 points), in stores or restaurants (28 points), and when voting in elections (23 points). By a margin of at least 20 percentage points, blacks are also more likely than whites to say racial discrimination (70 percentversus 36 percent), lower quality schools (75 percent versus 53 percent) and lack of jobs (66 percent versus 45 percent) are major reasons that blacks may have a harder time getting ahead than whites.
These gaps are enormous. The question is whether or not these divergent beliefs are also intractable. If we can’t come to an agreement on the basic facts of life, how on earth can we come to an agreement on the fundamentals of a united path forward?S
We can’t even agree on how much to talk about race relations, as the discussion itself becomes a political football for the two major parties in this country. According to the report:
About six in 10 (59 percent) white Republicans say too much attention is paid to race and racial issues these days, while only 21 percent of Democrats agree.
Finally, we continue to be deceived about the enormous and epidemic nature of often-invisible institutional racism, preferring instead to direct our ire at the more easily identified and vilified interpersonal racism. The report puts it this way:
On balance, the public thinks that when it comes to discrimination against black people in the U.S. today, discrimination that is based on the prejudice of individual people is a bigger problem than discrimination that is built into the nation’s laws and institutions. This is the case among both blacks and whites, but while whites offer this opinion by a large margin (70 percent to 19 percent), blacks are more evenly divided (48 percent to 40 percent).
Although it may feel interminable, this election won’t last forever. In November, America will make a choice.
But the choices that America has already made mean that the persistent question of race will still be with us, unresolved, waiting for yet another moment to explode. No amount of fatigue will change this. Only a true and earnest effort to address race relations fundamentally and honestly will provide the overdue and necessary fix.