Obama and race relations: hope soars, then plunges 

A new Gallup poll suggests that the sense of hopefulness about race relations that soared with the rise of Barack Obama has now plunged back to its pre-Obama level.

For more than 40 years, Gallup has asked the question, "Do you think that relations between blacks and whites will always be a problem for the United States, or that a solution will eventually be worked out?"

The numbers have trended slowly over the years. In the 1970s and 80s, the number of people who thought race would always be a problem was on the rise. Then in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the trend changed, and those expressing optimism outnumbered the pessimists.

Despite the gradual change, there have been two clear spikes in opinion during those 40 years. One involved the O.J. Simpson case in 1995, when the number of people expressing pessimism jumped 14 percent and the number of people expressing optimism fell by an almost equal margin. A year later, however, opinion returned to basically where it had been before the Simpson affair.

The other spike, going in the other direction, was the election of Barack Obama as president. The number of people expressing optimism jumped 13 percent with Obama's rise, and the number of people expressing pessimism fell almost as much. Now, however, we are seeing a return of opinion back to its pre-Obama levels.

Before Obama, 54 percent of respondents told Gallup that they believe racial problems will eventually be worked out, while 43 percent said that race would always be a problem. With the rise of Obama, the number of people who said that racial problems will be worked out jumped to 67 percent, and the number of people who said race would always be a problem fell to 30 percent -- the highest and lowest points for those views in Gallup's four decades of polling.

But now that has changed. The number of people who say racial problems will be worked out has fallen from 67 percent to 56 percent, and the number of people who say race will always be a problem has risen from 30 percent to 40 percent. Those figures are basically the same as before Obama appeared on the national scene.

"Despite the election of the first black president in U.S. history, Americans' optimism about a solution to the race problem in the U.S., and their views about the prevalence of racism against blacks are not substantially more positive now than they have been in previous years," Gallup concludes. The hope and change that Obama brought to the question has now disappeared.
 

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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