A year after Ferguson, whites are far more likely to admit racism is a problem

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Protestors demonstrate during a silent protest in the streets of downtown St. Louis, Missouri on March 14, 2015.

WASHINGTON — After a year of high-profile police shootings of black Americans, many captured on video, racial attitudes among Americans — particularly whites — have undergone a significant shift.

A majority of whites now say the country needs to do more to make equal rights a reality, and a significantly larger number of white Americans say blacks are treated less fairly than others by law enforcement officials, according to several newly released polls.

The share who say racism is a “big problem” in the U.S. has grown significantly as well.

Asked whether the country “needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites” or whether it already has “made the changes needed,” Americans by just short of 2-1 now say more change is needed, according to a new survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

A majority of whites, 53 percent, agrees that more change is needed, according to the Pew survey and a separate poll by The Washington Post and ABC News, which asked the same question.

The polls, both released Wednesday, come as the country approaches the Aug. 9 anniversary of the death of Michael Brown, the black teenager whose shooting by an officer in Ferguson, Mo., focused new attention on police use of force against blacks and other racial minorities.

The shifts are significant. For the last several years, fewer than 4 in 10 whites have said that the country needs more change to achieve equality. Instead, a majority of whites consistently has said that the country already had “made the changes needed.”

Some of the activists involved in protests the last year over police shootings took the shift in public opinion as at least a partial vindication.

“Man, that’s good, that’s huge,” said Tony Rice, one of the most prominent of Ferguson’s activists.

Rice, who has spent considerable time over the past year on a campaign to persuade white and black voters to recall Ferguson’s mayor, said white residents have often told him that the news during the last year has caused them to rethink racial issues.

“They said, ‘We had no idea what you guys were being treated like,’” he said. “My thing was, ‘Hey, we tried to tell you, you just didn’t listen,’” Rice said.

“Now they’re starting to listen. That’s what it comes down to,” he said. “I’ll take it.”

DeRay Mckesson, a prominent activist in the Black Lives Matter movement, called the shift in attitudes “an acknowledgement of the impact of racism” that black Americans have long experienced. That’s a testament to the impact the protests in Ferguson and elsewhere have had, he said.

But a change in attitude is only partial progress, he added. “It will be important,” he added, “that knowledge translates into action, that people use their privilege to dismantle racist structures and systems,” he said.

Even among African-Americans, the already large number who say the country needs to make more changes has grown in the last year, the polls found, reaching 86 percent in the Pew survey. Latinos also say by large margins that more changes are needed.

Among whites, a big part of the shift in attitudes has come from Republicans.

The GOP remains more conservative on racial issues than either Democrats or Americans who do not identify with either party. A majority of Republicans, for example, say that the country already has made the necessary changes to achieve equality.

But among Republicans, the share who say the country needs to change further has grown 15 points over the last year, Pew found.

By contrast with the partisan splits on racial issues, the numbers, surprisingly, don’t vary much between older and younger Americans.

Another measure — the share of Americans who say that racism in the U.S. is a “big problem” — has also shown a significant increase. Today, half of the country says racism is a “big problem,” Pew found, up from one-third who said so five years ago and one-quarter who held that view at the time Barack Obama was inaugurated as the nation’s first black president.

Among whites, just over 4 in 10 now see racism as a “big problem,” up from 1 in 4 when the question was last asked in 2010. A majority of blacks, 73 percent, and Latinos, 58 percent, call racism a big problem.

On that question too, a large share of the change has come from those who identify as Republican. The share in the GOP who say racism is a big problem has grown to 41 percent, up from just 17 percent in 2010.

Among Democrats, just under two-thirds see racism as a big problem, a number that has grown somewhat since 2010.

The percentage of Americans who described racism as a “big problem” fell from the mid-1990s, reaching a low point around the time of Obama’s election, which many Americans, including many blacks, took as an indicator that the country had, finally, turned a page on its long history of racial discrimination.

Now, however, the Pew poll, as well as a recent New York Times/CBS News survey, shows a sharp turnaround in attitudes. Americans are less sanguine about racial equality and more aware of tensions, the polls indicate.

The share of white Americans who say that blacks have an “equal chance” of “getting ahead in today’s society,” for example, has dropped by 10 points since last year and now stands at 51 percent, the New York Times/CBS survey found.

Polls can’t explain why attitudes have shifted, but some analysts say social media has had a major impact.

Social media has taken conversations that in the past would have taken place in “private spaces” and made them visible to a wider community, said Meredith Clark, an assistant professor at the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas who is conducting a research project on the Black Lives Matter movement.

That has made it possible for people to encounter views they might have been too uncomfortable to ask directly about, she said.

“It would be awkward if your co-worker came in and asked how you felt about seeing Mike Brown’s body on the ground in Ferguson last year,” Clark said. With social media, “you can just survey the information.”

That sort of change may have made white Americans more aware of the discrimination that non-whites experience.

A fourth poll, by Gallup, released this week, asked Americans whether they believe blacks are treated less fairly than others in a variety of situations. The poll found notable increases in the share of people who think blacks are discriminated against.

Just over 4 in 10 Americans say blacks are treated less fairly in dealing with the police, the poll found, up 6 points from 2007, when Gallup asked the question previously. A smaller share, about 1 in 4 Americans, say blacks are treated unfairly at stores and shopping malls. The share saying that has grown by 10 points, Gallup found.

Partisan divisions still remain a major factor on racial issues, however. That can be seen clearly in reactions to the decision by South Carolina officials to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of their statehouse.

By 57 percent to 34 percent, a solid majority of Americans say the decision to take down the flag was the right one. Among Republicans, however, 49 percent say the decision to remove the flag was wrong, compared with 43 percent who agreed with it. Democrats overwhelmingly agree with the decision, 74 percent to 19 percent.

The large share of Republicans who disagree with taking down the flag suggests the issue could still be a potent one in GOP primaries. South Carolina holds one of the earliest primaries in the Republican presidential nomination process, and the Confederate flag has been an issue in that contest in previous election years.

The Pew poll was conducted July 14-20 among 2,002 American adults and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points. The Washington Post/ABC poll was conducted July 29-Aug. 2 among 1,010 adults and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 points. The Gallup poll was conducted June 15-July 10, among 2,296 adults and has a margin of error of plus or minus four points.

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(Lauter reported from Washington and Pearce from Los Angeles.)

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