As a Major U.S. Problem, Race Relations Sharply Rises
Social Issues

As a Major U.S. Problem, Race Relations Sharply Rises

by Justin McCarthy

Story Highlights

  • At 13%, "racism" is at its highest since Rodney King trial in 1992
  • "Government" holds thin edge as current most important problem

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The percentage of Americans naming "race relations" or "racism" as the most important problem in the U.S. has climbed dramatically to 13%, the highest figure Gallup has recorded since a finding of 15% in 1992, in the midst of the Rodney King verdict. In November, race relations/racism was cited by 1% of the public as the most important problem.

Trend for Race Relations/Racism as Most Important Problem in U.S.

Since 1992, the percentage of Americans saying race relations/racism is America's biggest problem has ranged from 0% to 5%. The jump to 13% this month comes on the heels of national protests of police treatment of blacks in the wake of incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, among others.

Concurrently, Gallup has found recent drops in nonwhites' confidence in police to protect them as well as nonwhites' ratings of the honesty and ethical standards of police officers.

Nonwhites (22%) are more than twice as likely as whites (9%) to view racial issues as the nation's largest problem.

Race Relations/Racism as Most Important Problem, by Race

Prior to this month and the spring of 1992, the last time race relations was a significant top-of-mind issue for Americans was in the 1950s and 1960s, when race was front and center of national policy discussions on civil rights. In 1963, more than half of Americans (52%) said race relations was the country's biggest problem.

By the 1970s and 1980s, the percentage of Americans naming racial issues as the nation's biggest problem tapered off, before erupting in a single poll in the early 1990s.

After barely registering with Americans as the top problem for two decades, race relations now matches the economy in Americans' mentions of the country's top problem, and is just slightly behind government (15%). Eight percent of Americans now identify unemployment as the nation's greatest problem, down slightly from November.

Recent Trends in Top Four Most Important U.S. Problems

Bottom Line

With the news in recent weeks filled with protestors angry about high-profile grand jury decisions involving race, Americans have turned their attention to the issue of racial discord in this country. Race relations is now tied with the economy in general -- and nearly matches issues with the government -- as the nation's top perceived problem.

At 13%, the percentage now mentioning racism is nowhere near as high as Gallup found in the 1950s and 1960s, but is similar to the level found in the midst of the Rodney King case. It remains to be seen whether this public concern persists, as it did during the civil rights era, or recedes as quickly as it did in 1992.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Dec. 8-11, 2014, on the Gallup U.S. Daily survey, with a random sample of 805 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.

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