The perception that racism is a major problem in American society has dropped sharply from a decade ago. Yet 45 years after Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, and on the eve of Barack Obama's historic inauguration, many black Americans still report personal experiences of racism – underscoring the challenges in race relations that remain.
Twenty-six percent of Americans call racism a "big problem" in the United States, half what it was, 54 percent, in a 1996 poll, and down sharply among blacks and whites alike. At the same time, barely over one in three say blacks have in fact achieved racial equality, the goal King expressed in a speech at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963.
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Blacks, moreover, remain twice as likely as whites to call racism a big problem (44 percent vs. 22 percent), and only half as likely to say African-Americans have achieved equality. A key reason: Three-quarters of blacks in this ABC News/Washington Post poll personally have experienced racial discrimination. Far fewer whites, but still 30 percent, say the same; it rises to 68 percent of other non-whites.
For African-Americans those experiences include so-called "shopping while black" and "driving while black": In the most common one, 60 percent have felt that a storekeeper or shop clerk was trying to make them feel unwelcome solely because of their race.
Thirty-seven percent also say they've been stopped by the police because of their race. Thirty-five percent say they've been denied a job because of their race; 20 percent, denied housing. Others say these have occurred to a family member or friend.
In all, 74 percent of blacks report personal experience of discrimination in at least one of these areas; 44 percent, in two or more of them. And these experiences are more prevalent among blacks than they are among other non-white Americans.
Tomorrow, the day after Martin Luther King Day, Obama will become the nation's first African-American president, taking the oath of office on the Bible used by Abraham Lincoln at his inauguration in 1861. Among other expectations, an ABC poll earlier this month found that 58 percent of Americans think Obama will improve race relations.
DISCONNECT – In addition to the experience of racism, there's a disconnect between blacks and whites in the perception of racial equality within their own community. Large majorities of whites think blacks in their area receive equal treatment in housing, hiring, shopping and criminal justice. Far fewer blacks say the same.
The gaps are vast: In hiring, 83 percent of whites think blacks in their area have an equal chance to get a job for which they're qualified; just 38 percent of blacks agree. Eighty-one percent of whites see equal opportunity in housing; that drops to 47 percent of blacks. In shopping, again 83 percent of whites see equal treatment, vs. 44 percent of blacks.
When it comes to criminal justice, substantially fewer whites – 60 percent – say blacks in their community receive equal treatment by the police. But the fewest blacks – only 22 percent – share that view.