A majority of Americans now say that race relations in the United States are bad, according to the latest NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll, which showed the most pessimistic assessment of racial issues in almost two decades.
In the wake of protests over the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police, just four in ten Americans told pollsters that they believe race relations in the United States are "good," while 57 percent disagreed. And nearly a quarter—23 percent—classified the current state of the country's racial issues as "very bad."
The data showed a dramatic slide from just 18 months ago, when a July 2013 poll indicated that a majority—52 percent—offered an optimistic view of race relations. And throughout President Barack Obama's first term in the White House, more than seven in ten Americans said race relations were good, with a record 77 percent giving a positive assessment shortly after Obama's election as the first black president.
The recent data most closely matches a NBC/WSJ survey in October 1995, the same month that a jury acquitted black football star O.J. Simpson in the murder of his ex-wife. The verdict—decided by a nearly all-black jury— prompted a national debate about Simpson's innocence, exposing a sharp split between many white and black observers.
In that poll 34 percent of adults said that race relations were good, versus 61 percent who called them bad.
Like in 1995, both white and black survey respondents in the recent poll express pessimism about the current state of race relations.
Forty percent of whites and just 35 percent of blacks say race relations are good, while 58 percent and 63 percent, respectively, disagree. Latinos take a more sanguine attitude. About half—51 percent—say race relations are good, versus 43 percent who say they are bad.
Views of race relations are relatively consistent across party lines as well. Fifty-eight percent of Democrats, sixty percent of independents and 56 percent of Republicans say they have a negative view of the state of the nation's race relations today.
A likely factor in the perceived deterioration of goodwill between blacks and whites is the fallout from the deaths of two unarmed black men—one in Ferguson, Missouri and one in New York—at the hands of white police officers.
The poll found that the grand jury decision in the Ferguson case, which involved no video evidence of the altercation between police and an unarmed teenage male, prompted black respondents to report decreased confidence in the legal system, while white respondents were more neutral. Three-quarters of black Americans said the Ferguson case hurt their faith in the legal process, while just a quarter of whites agreed; two in ten white respondents said the verdict increased their confidence.
But the jury verdict in the death of Eric Garner, whose apprehension by police was captured on video, appeared to create more anxiety about the legal system regardless of race.
Four in ten white respondents, 73 percent of African Americans and 56 percent of Hispanics said that the grand jury's decision not to indict in the Staten Island case made them less confident in the nation's legal system.