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Poll: Majority Of Americans Say Racial Discrimination Is A 'Big Problem'


Almost four weeks since George Floyd was killed while in police custody in Minneapolis, sparking nationwide protests against police brutality and racism more broadly, there is evidence that those protests also reflect a more profound shift in American attitudes toward racism. In one recent Monmouth University poll, for example, 76% of respondents said racial discrimination is a big problem in the United States. That is a 25-point jump from 2015.

Patrick Murray is the director of Monmouth University's Polling Institute, and he's with us now from Long Branch, N.J.

Mr. Murray, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

PATRICK MURRAY: It's my pleasure, Michel.

MARTIN: As I just mentioned, 76% of Americans surveyed called racism and discrimination a big problem in your poll. That's up from 51% just five years ago. What do you think explains that?

MURRAY: Well, it has gone up with every incident that has occurred related to either a police shooting or some other type of violence that has involved a Black person and usually involving a death of a Black person. But what has been interesting to me is as it had gone up over those years, over the past five, six, seven years, the reason for it just seemed to be well, obviously, this is a problem because we're seeing more of it.

But what's the solution, what's the cause of it was really something that didn't shift all that much until what happened with George Floyd. And one of the questions that we asked was about the police use of excessive force. Are they more likely to use it when the person in question is Black versus it doesn't matter, race doesn't matter to them? That's the number that really flipped.

We went from a quarter of white Americans who said just a few years ago that police are more likely to use excessive force against a Black person to - now that's jumping up to half. Now it's just only half. But that's a huge shift in an underlying values question, not just an observation question - oh, yeah, there's a lot of racial unrest in the country - but an actual - the question about what's causing that. And that's what's really shifted.

MARTIN: I'm curious about this because it's not like a - you know, obviously the circumstances around George Floyd's death were terrible, and you could see it, and it's horrible to watch. But this isn't the first time people have seen these kinds of experiences. I mean, people saw Rodney King being beaten viciously...

MURRAY: Right.

MARTIN: ...When he was on the ground. People saw Eric Garner saying, I can't breathe. And I just wonder if you have a theory about why it is that this time, this incident that seems to have clicked for some people, where they're seeing this - what they've seen before, but in a new way.

MURRAY: In this instance, what we had is immediately because of the sensitization of the public, I think we have more of white America out there taking to the streets as well in these protests. And then you had a president - and I think this is key because this is what we know about shifts in values. Shifts in values in a public - as we measure public opinion are caused usually in part by the prodding of leadership.

In this case, we're seeing the prodding of leadership in a way that is negative, is not kind of trying to tamp this down, that President Trump's rhetoric specifically is one that's casting all protests as illegitimate and as wrong, which means if you're sitting in white suburban America, and you're seeing your neighbors, yourself called illegitimate, called an antifa sympathizer, called a terrorist, then you're in the same boat. And what President Trump is doing is driving people off the fence - that you have to take a side. And I think that's what's causing the sea change that we're seeing right now.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, you've mentioned so many factors here that seem to be influencing people's response to the current moment. So what about the big picture? I mean, if American attitudes toward racism seem to be shifting, as your poll suggests, how permanent do you think that change is?

MURRAY: I think I'd rather talk about this as a window has been open that wasn't open before. Now the question is, can you keep that window open and make it permanent? And that is an opportunity for a permanent shift in values.

MARTIN: That was Patrick Murray. He is the director of Monmouth University's Polling Institute. That's in New Jersey.

Patrick Murray, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

MURRAY: Anytime, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF LETTUCE'S "THE FORCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.