Americans: Racial Discrimination Still A Big Problem

The majority of Americans, including many African-Americans, still see racial discrimination as a serious problem in the U.S., according to recent CNN/ESSENCE survey. The findings are a blow to some who hoped the election of Barack Obama as the nation's first black president would inspire widespread racial reconciliation. Veteran pollsters Ron Lester and Frank Luntz discuss the findings and the road to racial progress in the U.S.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

The New Haven case was decided by a narrow five-to-four majority on the court, evidence, many people said, of how people divided the country remains on matters of race. And a new poll suggests that even the election of a black president did not close that divide, at least not for long. A recent CNN/Essence magazine poll found that more than half of the African-Americans surveyed - 55 percent - believe racial discrimination is a serious problem.

And that number has increased significantly from the 38 percent who gave that answer during the 2008 presidential campaign. In the same poll, 45 percent of blacks and 42 percent of whites said they thought race relations will always be a problem in the U.S. But what about a recent New York Times poll showing that a majority of Americans think race relations are generally good, and that the number of blacks who agree with that statement has reached historic heights?

So where are we? How do most Americans measure the state of race relations? How is that playing out in the real world? Can we ask, are we post racial yet? To talk this over, we've called two veteran pollsters and political consultants who've work both sides of the isle. Joining us in our Washington, D.C. studio is veteran Democratic pollster Ron Lester. On the phone from his home in Santa Monica is Frank Luntz. And Frank, do you consider yourself a Republican or an Independent, I'm sorry I…

Mr. FRANK LUNTZ (Republican Political Consultant): Basically, everyone gets confused…

MARTIN Okay.

Mr. LUNTZ: …sometimes I do. It depends on what hat I'm wearing.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. LUNTZ: For purpose of this conversation, I've looked at the data not through partisan lenses but through what Americans really think.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, then let's ask, what do you think Americans really think? And what measure do you think is the right one to assess that?

Mr. LUNTZ: Well, that's the problem and that's the issue. The way that the question is referenced determines the reaction. I'll give you the best example. Pew put out a survey this year where support for affirmative action remains over 60 percent. But support for racial preferences is down in the mid 30s. How you phrase the question determines how people react. It's still sensitive. It still touches a raw nerve among the public. And so the wording is as much emotional as it is intellectual in responding to this question.

MARTIN: Ron, what do you think?

Mr. RON LESTER (Democratic Pollster): Well, I would agree with Frank, but I would also say that there is a lot of optimism out there now about race. But the economy, the economic downturn has been particularly devastating for blacks. Unemployment is at the highest level in years. It's 14.9 percent in the most recent report. And that's up from 11 percent a year ago. So unemployment in the last year among African-Americans is up 30 percent which is just devastating. Virtually all of the gains made during the Clinton years have been wiped out.

So, you know, blacks are experiencing a very, very difficult time and finding their way through the workforce. A lot of people who are losing jobs are finding it very difficult to transition into new jobs because they don't necessarily have the technological skills that are needed in this increasingly technological economy. So it's a very difficult time for African-Americans but there is a lot of optimism about race out there.

MARTIN: On both sides?

Mr. LESTER: On both sides…

MARTIN: And I do not want to leave other races out of the equation…

Mr. LESTER: Absolutely.

MARTIN: …that are generally sampled, this is the kind of the…

Mr. LESTER: …absolutely…

MARTIN: …binary conversation that we've been having. I think this is the longest amount of data on these two. Just briefly, Ron, do you mind giving me your opinion? We're going to take a short break in just a minute, we're going to come back to this conversation. What do you think?

Mr. LESTER: Well, I think, we're at a very challenging period. I think that the economy is changing and that not just blacks but that people that are unskilled are having a very, very difficult time. And that they are going to have to find ways to transition, as President Obama has said, a lot of people may have go back to school and get those skills because we live in a world, in an economy that's becoming increasingly technologically. You need to learn how to work a computer…

MARTIN: And how does that translate in a race context, do you think that it leads itself to finger pointing and blame?

Mr. LUNTZ: Because the Hispanic and the African-American communities are less prepared to deal with this economic reality…

MARTIN: And you think that would lead them to have more concern about racism and to attribute it more of these difficulties to racism…

Mr. LUNTZ: …it leads them to be lot more pessimistic about a lot of things.

MARTIN: We are talking to pollsters Ron Lester and Frank Luntz about how Americans perceive race relations in this historic moment. We need to take a short break. We're going to pick up that conversation in just a moment. Please stay with us on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin. And this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, as the nation remembers Michael Jackson, you've been hearing his biggest hits like "Billie Jean" and "Thriller" over and over again. But the King of Pop laid down plenty of tracks that don't get much airplay. Music critic and longtime Jackson watcher Steven Ivory walks us through the lesser known parts of the Michael Jackson music catalogue. And he says they're a second listen. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, we're continuing our conversation about how Americans feel about the state of race relations. Our guests are Democrat pollster Ron Lester and Frank Luntz. He is a Republican and who's worked for independent candidates and as he told us, most interesting what he thinks American really think. So Frank, what do you think Americans really think?

Mr. LUNTZ: Well, you know, you made the comment about whether other racial groups are left on the outside. The polling for 2009 indicates that Hispanic and Latino communities - and by the way, even the discussion, is it African-American or is it black? Ron Lester used the word black. I hear a majority of people use African-American, that descriptive term causes a reaction among the listener. Is it Hispanic or Latino? In the polling that I've done, it is 40 percent prefer the label Hispanic, 40 percent Latino and 20 percent either don't know or don't care. So just that tone of descriptor causes the listener to have an opinion on issues that affect, that are particularly divisive by race.

MARTIN: Does that mean then that polling is just not very useful as a means to discuss these issues?

Mr. LUNTZ: It's exactly the opposite. Polling is essential. By my studying of words and how people react to those words, I really understand not just how people think but I understand how they feel. And I understand either what triggers a conversation or discussion that unifies people or one that either turns them off, or worse yet, divides them.

MARTIN: So how do they feel Frank…

Mr. LUNTZ: (unintelligible)

MARTIN: …we really want to know. Yeah, how do they feel about the state of race relations?

Mr. LUNTZ: I think Ron is dead on. I think he's absolutely correct that even with individual circumstances such as New Haven, that the public is hopeful and optimistic that we can address whatever issues do divide us in a calm and peaceful manner. And in fact, in the down testing that I did during 2008, Barack Obama's speech on race was one of the most positive - caused one of the most positive reactions that we have ever tested from a presidential candidate on an issue that normally is so divisive.

MARTIN: One of the things that was interesting to me is that over the last however long, decade or so, our conversations around race have centered on things like affirmative action and sometimes, you know, the welfare state which I think, you know, makes some people crazy. But what do you think are productive things to talk about now if we want to talk about race relations? What, how can we for example address the issue that Ron Lester talked about? And I'm going to go you Frank, first, and then to Ron about, what are the pathways out of the disparities that we report on and know so well? Frank.

Mr. LUNTZ: Oh, in a word, education. And it is not surprising that within the Latino community education is the number one priority, even above health care. And among African-Americans education is a higher priority than it is among white Americans. That they see that if you can address the disparity that exists in some schools and some communities across the country, if you can resolve that you can resolve so much over the next 10 or 20 years. And if you fail to resolve it then the problems that we have today continue for the next generation.

MARTIN: Ron Lester.

Mr. LESTER: Well, I think the challenges are going to be met in the long-term, that these are, this is a long-term problem here and challenge because a lot of lower income people, unskilled people tend to be concentrated in the service sector, manufacturing, utilities and transportation. There have been major job losses in all these areas. A lot of these jobs are not coming back. These people have to transition into new jobs that are going to be increasingly technological. So what are they going to have to do? It's just like Frank said, they are going to have to get some more education and training. And we're going to have to retool, we're going to have to - it's a possibility that we may be able to create five million new green jobs in energy, in retrofitting these houses et cetera. So someone was an automobile line worker at GM, now they may need to go back to school and learn how to retrofit houses. So the challenge is a long-term one. I'm optimistic that it can be overcome. But it's going to take some education, some training and some time.

MARTIN: One of the things that I find interesting in the CNN poll that started us off, where African-Americans reported that they didn't think that race relations were any better than - now than they were before Barack Obama. Is it - when the question was asked, do you expect your children will be better off or worse off than you when they reach your current stage of life? African-Americans, by far, 86 percent said they thought their children would be better off, whereas the whites responded that they did not, 59 percent. Ron Lester why might that be?

Mr. LESTER: Well, I'm not sure but I could say this, that African-Americans clearly are more upbeat and optimistic than they've been in a long time. President Obama is the main reason. His job approval is 94 percent, which is just unbelievable, is off the charts. His job approval continues to be high among all groups, not just blacks but whites, Hispanics and just across the board. But there are some concerns and some challenges in the country. The economy is the biggest one. I think that it's just going to take some time to dig ourselves out of this hole.

MARTIN: And Ron - I'm sorry, Frank, final thought from you, we have about a minute.

Mr. LUNTZ: Yes, it's an issue of age. You talk to people in their 20s and they don't see race. They would listen to a conversation like this and say, I don't get it. They don't see white, black, Latino, Asian. It doesn't come into their perspective because of how they are raised. You talk to people in their 50s and this conversation makes perfect sense to them and there is deeply divided opinion. So you can't just look at this by what African-Americans think or whites think. You've got to look at it, are we talking to a 23 year-old who is genuinely colorblind or a 63 year-old who grew up still remembering the Civil Rights movement and the divisions in this country?

MARTIN: Oh, food for thought, to be continued. Frank Luntz is a longtime pollster for the Republican party and also does work for media organizations. He was kind enough to join us from his home in Santa Monica. Ron Lester is a veteran Democratic pollster. He joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Gentlemen, I thank you both so much.

Mr. LESTER: Great to be here.

Mr. LUNTZ: Thank you.

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