Race in America: Views on Racial Disparities 50 Years Later

Five decades after Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, why does racial equality remain an elusive goal?

By Chris Hoenig


The words rang from the lips of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. From the footsteps of a memorial dedicated to the President who fought to end slavery, the words echoed through the ears of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Americans who spent hours aboard buses—450 buses just from Harlem; six full buses traveling the 750 miles from Birmingham, Ala., to Washington, D.C; 100 buses an hour passing through the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel on the morning of Aug. 28, 1963–to hear Dr. King's dream.

Dr. King spoke. An entire nation listened.

But 50 years later, 35 percent of Black Americans say they have experienced discrimination because of their race over the past year. And a deeper look at a study from the Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends project shows just how many Americans see racial disparities.

We're On the Right Road …

"We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment."

More than 80 percent of Americans believe the country has come at least some of the way toward racial equality since Dr. King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech, with those who say the U.S. has made a lot of progress outnumbering those who say we've made a little or no progress by a 3-1 margin.

But that view is largely dependent on who you're asking: Blacks are more than twice as likely as whites to say little-to-no progress has been made (27 percent vs. 11 percent), while 48 percent of whites say a lot of progress has been made versus just 32 percent of Blacks. Men are also more likely than women to say the U.S. has made a lot of progress (50 percent vs. 41 percent), as are Republicans—56 percent versus only 38 percent of Democrats.

… But There's Still A Long Way to Go

"You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends."

 

Despite the overall view that America has made strides in closing racial disparities, there's also a widespread opinion that there remains a long way to go, with nearly half of Americans saying that there's still "a lot" that needs to be done to achieve racial equality. Another 31 percent of Americans believe that "some" more needs to be done, while only 16 percent say little-to-nothing else needs to be done.

Here, the demographic disparities are even bigger: 79 percent of Blacks say a lot more needs to be done, compared with only 44 percent of whites. Men and women are of very similar opinions (52 percent of women and 46 percent of men say a lot more needs to be done), but political affiliation colors a person's judgment. Among Republicans, 35 percent say a lot needs to be done, but 22 percent say only a little needs to be done, at most, to achieve racial equality. Only 9 percent of Democrats feels that way, while 63 percent say a lot of work remains.

"When it comes to Martin Luther King's dream of racial equality, the public seems to be saying that we as a society are heading in the right direction but we aren't there yet," study author Rich Morin told DiversityInc.

Differing Views on Where Equality is Lacking

"There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, 'When will you be satisfied?' We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities."

Whether it's in the justice system, the school system, work or just going out in public, Blacks were anywhere from nearly two to nearly four times more likely than whites to say that the Black community is treated less fairly than whites. "It is clear that whites and Blacks view the communities they share very differently in terms of how Blacks are treated relative to whites," Morin said. "The differences by race and by party on most key measures—particularly perceptions of the fairness of local institutions—were not surprising but the size of these disparities is notable."

Among the largest disparities are voting in elections (48 percent of Blacks, 13 percent of whites), getting healthcare (47 percent of Blacks, 14 percent of whites), in public school (51 percent of Blacks, 15 percent of whites) and at work (54 percent of Blacks, 16 percent of whites). In stores and restaurants, 44 percent of Blacks say they're treated less fairly than whites, compared with 16 percent of whites who say the same.

Whites are most likely to agree with Blacks—who also speak out in the largest numbers—when it comes to the judicial system. In dealing with the police, 70 percent of Blacks and 37 percent of whites say Blacks are treated less fairly, while 68 percent of Blacks and 27 percent of whites say Blacks are treated unfairly in the courts.

Relationships Between Races & Ethnicities

"The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom."

Black and white Americans also have different views of how the two races get along. Among whites, 69 percent say whites and Blacks get along with each other "pretty well," while 12 percent say "very well." Blacks are more likely to say the groups get along "not too well" (by a 23 percent to 14 percent margin), but are also more likely to say "very well" (16 percent). Fifty-seven percent of Blacks describe the relationship as getting along "pretty well."

"We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back."

—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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