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Most Americans agree Trump has made race relations worse

A new report looks at US race relations under Trump. The findings are bad for the president.

President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi.
President Donald Trump in a meeting on April 9, 2019 in the Oval Office.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Most Americans agree: President Donald Trump has made race relations in the US worse.

That finding comes from an extensive survey and report by the Pew Research Center on race in America published on Tuesday. Analyzing a survey of more than 6,600 adults conducted over two weeks in January and February, the report, by Juliana Menasce Horowitz, Anna Brown, and Kiana Cox, details Americans’ views on race relations, the n-word, discrimination by the police and criminal justice system, racist jokes, and much more.

The findings are not good for Trump, showing that a majority or plurality agree that Trump has made race relations worse, that people are more likely to express racist views since Trump was elected, and that racist views are more acceptable since Trump’s election.

The same report found, however, that views on race and racism remain deeply polarized by political party — a major barrier to any resolution to heal race relations and combat racism.

Here are three big takeaways from the report and what it tells us about Trump, racism, and race relations in America.

1) Most Americans agree Trump has made race relations worse

A chart showing that most Americans think President Donald Trump, but not former President Barack Obama, has made race relations worse.

Pew’s survey found 56 percent of Americans agree that Trump has made relations worse, while 28 percent believe he’s made progress toward improving race relations or has tried but failed to make progress. In contrast, the majority of Americans — 64 percent — told Pew that former President Barack Obama made progress toward improving race relations or tried but failed to make progress, while just 25 percent said Obama made race relations worse.

Pew’s report doesn’t break down why most Americans feel this way, but it’s not a mystery. Trump launched his 2016 presidential campaign with a speech describing Mexican immigrants as criminals and “rapists.” He went on to propose a ban on all Muslims entering the US. Trump said that a judge should recuse himself from a case involving Trump because of the judge’s Mexican heritage. Trump repeatedly attacked NFL players who knelt and silently protested during the national anthem in demonstrations against systemic racism.

And under Trump’s watch, white nationalists and neo-Nazis held a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, with attendees, including former KKK grand wizard David Duke, saying that Trump enabled the rally. Counterprotesters showed up to demonstrate against racism, and the racist protesters responded with violence — and one man rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring dozens.

Trump’s response? He argued that “many sides” and “both sides” were to blame for the violence, claiming that there were “some very fine people on both sides” — a comment he never apologized for, even after it was widely interpreted, including by white supremacists, as a dog whistle to white supremacists.

It’s in this context — with many other examples — that Americans say race relations have gotten worse under Trump.

2) Most Americans say people are more likely to express racist views since Trump’s election

Charts showing that a majority and plurality of Americans, respectively, agree that expressions of racist views are more common and that racism is now more acceptable since President Donald Trump’s election.

So how have race relations gotten worse? For one, nearly two-thirds of Americans agreed that it has become more common since Trump was elected for people to express racist or racially insensitive views. And a plurality of Americans — 45 percent — say racist or racially insensitive views have become more acceptable since Trump’s election.

Further in the report, Pew breaks the findings down by demographics. They find a majority of white, black, and Hispanic Americans agree that it’s more common for people to express racist or racially insensitive views, though black and Hispanic respondents were more likely to say this. A strong majority of Democrats — 84 percent — said expressions of racist views are more common. And even though a majority of Republicans said expressions of racist views were about as common or less common, a significant minority of 42 percent said that they have become more common.

Again, the Pew report doesn’t go into detail as to why most Americans feel this way. But one likely contributor is that Trump is making comments that are widely interpreted as racist or racially insensitive, while white nationalists and neo-Nazis are openly holding rallies in US cities.

3) After Trump, race-related issues are still very politically polarized

A chart showing that views on race remain politically polarized.

Given that Trump is at the center of these issues, it should come as little surprise that views are deeply divided by political party. Pew’s findings show that Republicans see racism and race relations as less of a problem in general, while most Democrats see both as significant problems.

The political polarization of race issues continues a trend we’ve seen in recent years as America becomes less white and more diverse overall, but it bodes poorly for solutions to this issue.

In a review of the recent research on politics and race, Ezra Klein explained for Vox:

The Democratic Party will not be able to win elections without an excited, diverse coalition. The Republican Party will not be able to win elections without an enthused white base. Democrats will need to build a platform that’s even more explicit in its pursuit of racial and gender equality, while Republicans will need to design a politics even more responsive to a coalition that feels itself losing power.

This dynamic is behind much of the frustration about “identity politics.” When a single group dominates the political agenda, their grievances and demands are just coded as politics, and the vast majority of policy is designed in response to their concerns. But that changes when no one group can control the agenda but many groups can push items onto it; then the competition between identity-based groups becomes visible. And it becomes particularly visible to the group that’s traditionally dominated the agenda and believes that their issues reflect what politics is supposed to be about and other groups’ concerns represent special pleading.

This is a recipe for continued disaster. When Republicans are in power, minority Americans will feel like they are underrepresented and oppressed. Then when Democrats are in power, white Americans will feel like they are still losing power — making them more desperate and likely to support previously unthinkable presidential candidates like Trump.

As Klein acknowledged in his piece, it’s not clear what the solution will be here, though some states, like California and Texas, have managed to “transition into majority-minority status without falling to pieces.” But in the short and perhaps medium term, the continued political polarization of race in America is likely to empower more people like Trump, and race relations will remain strained.