Race relations in U.S. seen to be gradually improving

Poll shows discrepancies between perceptions, facts of everyday life

July 11, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Thirty-five years after the dismantling of legalized segregation, a majority of Americans maintain that race relations in the United States are generally good, but blacks and whites continue to have starkly divergent perceptions of many racial issues and they remain largely isolated from each other in their everyday lives, according to a nationwide poll by the New York Times.

The poll, which surveyed 2,165 adults, detected some signs that blacks and whites believe that race relations are improving. The proportion of those surveyed who said that race relations in the country are generally good -- 57 percent -- is at its highest mark in 10 years, a full 16 percentage points higher than in 1990.

Large majorities of both races -- 63 percent of whites and 79 percent of blacks -- said they approved of interracial marriage, compared with 44 percent of whites and 70 percent of blacks who said so in a 1991 poll.

And the percentage who said the country has made progress in reducing racial discrimination -- 74 percent, including 78 percent of whites and 58 percent of blacks -- is about 25 points higher for each group than in May 1992, just after the Rodney King trial. The percentage of blacks who see progress has doubled in that period.

But the poll also revealed a core of blacks -- about four in 10, many of them college-educated -- who find little to celebrate today. Those blacks said race relations were generally bad and no real progress had been made in eliminating racial discrimination since the 1960s.

On many questions, particularly those related to whether blacks are treated equitably and whether race plays too large a role in the national discourse, blacks and whites are far apart.

One of the few areas where blacks and whites are most in agreement is in their perceptions of racial hostility. Similar percentages -- 39 percent of whites and 45 percent of blacks -- said either many or almost all white people dislike blacks. And 45 percent of whites and the same percentage of blacks either many or almost all black people dislike whites.

The poll is rife with seeming contradictions. One is a telescopic pattern in which people of both races depict themselves more sanguine about race relations in their communities, and more sensitive in their views, than they believe to be the case elsewhere.

For instance, 88 percent of whites and 82 percent of blacks said race relations were generally good in their neighborhoods. Similarly large majorities of both said race relations were generally good where they worked and at their children's schools.

But the numbers dropped when people were asked to characterize race relations in their communities, and they dropped more when they were asked about race relations in the country. Only 58 percent of whites and 51 percent of blacks said race relations in the country were generally good; 30 percent of whites and 40 percent of blacks said they were generally bad.

On the topic of social interaction, large numbers -- 69 percent of whites and 84 percent of blacks -- said they had socialized with someone of another race outside their homes during the last month. Forty-three percent of whites and 58 percent of blacks said people of another race had visited their homes socially in the past month.

And yet the poll made it clear that most Americans do not live, work or worship with those of other races.

The poll, conducted June 21-29, surveyed 1,107 people who said they are white and 934 who said they are black. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points for each racial group.

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