Paying tribute to the five police officers slain in the Dallas mass shooting earlier this year, President Barack Obama urged mourning Americans not to give in to despair over the country’s gaping racial divide. “I’m here to insist that we are not as divided as we might seem,” Obama declared. “I know that because I know America. I know how far we’ve come against impossible odds.”
But despite Obama’s optimism, new data from the fall 2016 Harvard Public Opinion Project poll shows that an overwhelming 78 percent of youth are “very” or “somewhat” concerned about the state of race relations in America today. These data echo a July poll conducted by the New York Times and CBS News that found that 69 percent of Americans believe race relations are “generally bad”, a proportion that the country hasn’t seen since 1992, following the Los Angeles riots after the Rodney King verdict.
And according to the HPOP data, there is little confidence that race relations will improve after the November election. Respondents to the poll were virtually split on whether race relations would improve or worsen under a potential Clinton administration (23 percent vs. 22 percent, while 36 percent expected race relations would remain the same), but 62 percent of youth polled believed that a Trump presidency would worsen race relations (only 8 percent expected that race relations would improve, and 12 percent expected that they would remain the same). In addition, over half (56 percent) of young Americans believe that overall, the caustic tone of the presidential election this year has harmed more than helped the state of race relations in the country—perhaps reflective of a deeper millennial cynicism about the nature of the democratic process.
Moreover, the poll illustrates a pervasive fear among young people of color that “people of [their] own racial background are under attack in America.” 85 percent of young African Americans and 72 percent of young Hispanics polled believed this to be the case, while 45 percent of young white Americans felt the same. These fears illustrate the deep racial divide that Obama characterized as a “fault line” in our democracy in his Dallas speech—one that leaves many Americans, and young Americans in particular, justifiably questionable about whether our country’s racial divide will ever be bridged. There appears to be little confidence that it will be in the next presidential term. But depending on America’s decision on November 8, the data show significant concern that it could worsen.