WASHINGTON — African Americans are increasingly pessimistic that progress is being made toward achieving the vision of racial equality outlined by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years ago, according to a survey released Thursday.
In a poll for the Pew Research Center, titled “King’s Dream Remains an Elusive Goal,” only 26 percent of African Americans said the situation for black people has improved in the last five years and 21 percent said things have gotten worse. In a 2009 poll, 39 percent saw improvements, Pew said. Today, half said the picture is essentially unchanged.
Whites had a much more positive view of black progress, with 35 percent saying things had gotten better in the last five years. However, even among whites, that share has fallen from 49 percent in 2009.
In the fifth year of Barack Obama’s presidency, Pew researchers and scholars of race relations attributed the pessimistic outlook among African Americans to the fading glow of Obama’s first term and lingering struggles to emerge from the recession. Pew said that sentiment is now approximately where it was before the recession and Obama’s election.
“The euphoria over Obama’s election and reelection has worn off,” said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University. “A lot of people assumed that because a number of blacks were elected to high profile offices — President Obama, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Newark Mayor Cory Booker — there would be no more racism in American society. But it involves more than an election to bring about true racial reconciliation.”
Other polls have similarly noted both the buoyant optimism expressed by African Americans in Obama’s first term, and the subsequent deflation in hope.
In a series of Washington Post polls, 60 percent of blacks surveyed in 2008 before Obama’s election said King’s vision had not been fulfilled. That dramatically flipped by his inauguration in 2009, when 65 percent of blacks said it had. But the pessimism returned by 2011, with 56 percent saying King’s dream had not become reality.
The Pew survey was released at the beginning of a week’s worth of commemorative events marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where a multiracial crowd of 250,000 people heard King make his ringing “I Have a Dream” speech. Marches are scheduled for both Saturday and Aug. 28, the actual anniversary when Obama will speak where King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Several groups, including those that organized the 1963 march, plan to hold seminars and panel discussions with a forward-looking agenda on issues they say must be tackled if progress is not to be reversed.
The poll and the anniversary events come shortly after a drumbeat of high-profile cases in which race was front and center – the jury acquittal of a man who shot Trayvon Martin, a Supreme Court ruling that invalidated part of the Voting Rights Act, debate over racial profiling in New York City’s Stop and Frisk policy, and controversy after several celebrities and athletes used racial slurs. Reactions to the verdict in the Martin case were particularly polarized, with African Americans much more likely than whites to see the shooting, and the shooter’s acquittal, as an example of deep-rooted racism in society.
The Pew survey also cited several economic statistics collected by the census and other government agencies showing that by most measures, the gap between black and white well-being remains stubbornly large. For example, census figures show that while the poverty rate for blacks has dived, from 42 percent in 1966 to 28 percent in 2011, it still is almost double the national average.
That is not what many people, particularly African Americans, expected in the second term of the country’s first black president.
“People look at their own lives and find their lives aren’t better, and in many cases are worse,” said Lester Spence, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist who studies the intersection of race and politics. “With this economy, it’s like we’re still in the middle of a recession. It’s just corporate profits that have increased. Lots of people thought, oh my God, we elected Obama again and maybe this election will trickle down, have some sort of political effect. But when they test that idea against their own lives, they find it wanting.”
In the Pew poll, many African Americans – and a significant minority of whites – said blacks are treated less fairly than whites. About seven in 10 blacks told Pew that was particularly true in dealings with police and the courts, and one in four whites agreed with that assessment.
In addition, roughly half the African Americans cited racial disparities in virtually every aspect of daily life – in the workplace, stores and restaurants, public schools, getting health care and voting. Whites see things differently. Only about one in seven whites said blacks were treated less fairly than whites in any of those settings.
If there was one bright spot in an otherwise fairly bleak assessment, large majorities of blacks, whites and Hispanics told Pew that in their interpersonal relations, different races got along reasonably well.
Eight in 10 whites said blacks and whites got along very well or pretty well, and seven in 10 blacks agreed.
Kris Marsh, a sociologist at the University of Maryland at College Park who studies the black middle class, said that may be a result of fairly limited social interaction between blacks and whites.
“As individuals report racial and ethnic progress on an individual level, individuals may continue to encounter racial and ethnic injustices and inequalities on an institutional level,” she said.