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.
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.
Using the negative results, 76 percent of blacks say African-Americans in their community are denied equal treatment by the police, 60 percent say they lack equal hiring opportunities, 54 percent say they're not treated equally by retailers and half say they lack equal treatment in housing.
Perceptions of racial discrimination, naturally, spike among blacks who've personally experienced it, particularly if they've experienced it in multiple areas. These African-Americans are much more likely to say racism is a big problem, to think blacks in their community are subject to racism and to be skeptical that blacks will achieve equality.
EQUALITY – There are positive views: While just 35 percent of Americans believe blacks have achieved racial equality, an additional 38 percent think they will achieve it soon – a total of 73 percent. (Most of the rest think it'll happen, but not in their lifetime.)
Among blacks only, moreover, a total of 56 percent think they have achieved equality or will soon – 20 and 36 percent, respectively. And just 18 percent think it'll never happen.
Moreover, in the ABC poll earlier this month, 55 percent of blacks said Obama's election made them more proud to be an American. And 65 percent of all Americans, equal numbers of blacks and whites alike, saw his election as a sign of progress for all blacks – a road signposted by the achievements of Lincoln, King and now by Obama.
METHODOLOGY – This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Jan. 13-16, 2009, among a random national sample of 1,079 adults, including landline and cell-only respondents, with an oversample of African-Americans (weighted to their correct share of the population) for a total of 204 black respondents. Results for the full sample have a 3-point error margin; for blacks, 7 points. Click here for a detailed description of sampling error. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, PA.