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Is racism on the rise? More in U.S. say it's a 'big problem,' CNN/KFF poll finds

Catherine E. Shoichet | 11/24/2015, 11:30 a.m.
In a new nationwide poll conducted by CNN and the Kaiser Family Foundation, roughly half of Americans -- 49% -- ...
Poll asks how big of a problem racism is in our society today. The graph shows a breakdown of who says racism is a big problem between blacks, hispanics and whites. (CNN graphic)

— It's gotten worse, not better, since the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, says Ellis Onic. The 56-year-old engineer in Balch Springs, Texas, who's African-American, points to the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin and this year's Charleston church massacre as examples. Time and time again, Onic says, the justice system has failed.

"The white man has had his way for so long, they don't think of it as racism. They think that's just the way it is. ... We have a long way to go, because the justice system is not right. Justice is corrupt," he says. "That's why she has the blindfold over her eyes and the scale slightly tilted, so you know that it can go either way."

Jim Bruemmer sees things differently.

The white, 83-year-old retired advertising executive in St. Louis, who participated in the CNN/KFF poll, says media coverage alleging racism -- particularly when it comes to law enforcement officers -- has been overblown.

"I am troubled by the bias I see in the media, that seems to spend all its time talking about the bad policemen and the bad white people and ignoring the crime and the disastrous conditions that are occurring in large segments of the black youth," he says.

Bruemmer says he's had to look no further than a suburb of St. Louis to see that firsthand.

"The belief is so universally held among the people I know, that the whole Ferguson thing was a farce," he says, "that 'hands up, don't shoot' was baloney, that the police officer behaved in a very proper manner and saved his own life, possibly."

Growing racism?

Gauging changes in racial attitudes is complicated, says Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a professor of sociology at Duke University. Bonilla-Silva has a phrase he uses to describe the situation he sees today: "new racism."

"After the 1960s and early 1970s, somehow we developed the mythology that systemic racism disappeared," he says.

Racism remained, according to Bonilla-Silva, but became more covert.

"The main problem nowadays is not the folks with the hoods, but the folks dressed in suits," he says.

"New racism," he says, has been decades in the making. But something has changed in recent years -- access to cell phones and social media.

Accusations that police use excessive force, particularly against African-Americans, for example, now can get far more attention -- far more quickly -- than ever.

Communities of color across the country can more easily connect, according to Bonilla-Silva, and people are picking up on patterns that scholars have long discussed.

"People are doing Sociology 101. They can connect Walter Scott, the assassinations of black folks in a church, the slamming of a girl in a school," he says. "And then it's across the nation. People are then connecting the dots and saying, 'No more.'"

Growing awareness?

While the trend of a growing percentage of people viewing racism as a big problem in recent years was true across racial lines in the CNN/KFF poll, the share who see it as a problem is notably higher among blacks and Hispanics.