Racial issues have long been a source of tension and conflict in American society. However, in recent years, it seems that racial polarization has reached new heights. The election of Donald Trump, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, high-profile police killings of unarmed black men, and debates over Confederate monuments and symbols have all contributed to a climate of heightened racial tension and divisiveness. This article will examine the current state of race relations in America, the key factors driving increased polarization, and potential solutions for addressing these complex issues.
The Current State of Race Relations
Surveys show that Americans have become increasingly pessimistic about race relations in recent years. In July 2016, 48% of Americans rated race relations as “very bad” or “somewhat bad,” according to a Gallup poll. This was up sharply from the 17% who gave race relations negative ratings in 2009 when President Obama first took office (Jones, 2016). More Americans believe that race relations are deteriorating than at any time in recent decades. A 2019 Pew Research survey found that 56% of Americans say race relations in the U.S. are generally bad. Three-quarters say the way black people are treated in the U.S. is an extremely or very important issue right now (Horowitz et al., 2019).
Racial divisions were exacerbated by the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016. Trump campaigned on themes that racial minorities found discriminatory and offensive, such as calling Mexican immigrants “rapists,” proposing a ban on Muslim immigration, and painting a dark picture of life for African Americans. Numerous polls have shown that President Trump is deeply unpopular among blacks and Hispanics. For instance, Gallup polling over the course of Trump’s first two years in office found his approval rating at around 10% among blacks versus over 40% among whites (Newport, 2018). Trump’s rhetoric has been embraced by right-wing extremist groups who feel emboldened under his leadership. Hate crimes have surged during Trump’s presidency, especially against blacks, Jews, and Muslims (Levin & Grisham, 2021). Racial polarization has also grown over issues like Confederate statues, NFL player protests, and use of terms like “white privilege.” The right and left have drifted further apart on such racially-charged topics.
Key Drivers of Increased Polarization
There are numerous interlocking social, political, economic, and media factors that help explain today’s heightened racial polarization:
Demographic Shifts – The U.S. population is becoming more diverse, with white Americans projected to lose their majority status by 2045 (Frey, 2018). This impending demographic shift has stoked racial anxiety and defensiveness among some white Americans. Trump strategically tapped into these fears with his anti-immigration rhetoric.
Legacy of Slavery/Racism – Centuries of black oppression, from slavery to Jim Crow laws to modern forms of discrimination, has created socioeconomic disparities between racial groups. Issues like racial profiling, police brutality, and inequality fuel black anger and disillusionment.
Political Tribalism – Increased political polarization based on party affiliation has overlapped with racial divisions. With minorities overwhelmingly supporting Democrats, the Republican Party has become almost entirely white. This makes cross-racial understanding and compromise more difficult.
Social Media – Social platforms enable the spread of racist rhetoric, disinformation, and inflammatory language that divides groups. Algorithmic amplification of extreme voices exacerbates online toxicity and polarization.
Geographic Segregation – Self-segregation into racially homogenous communities and neighborhoods reduces intergroup contact and understanding. Poor whites and minorities especially lack shared social institutions like schools, churches, etc.
News Media Fragmentation – The splintering of traditional news media into partisan spheres prevents shared narratives. Right-wing news outlets in particular propagate racist tropes and fearmongering.
Conspiracy Theories & Disinformation – Social media facilitates conspiracy theory propagation, leading minorities to believe they are being actively persecuted and whites to believe they are being intentionally replaced. Baseless rumors about the 2020 election have also become intertwined with racial polarization.
Potential Remedies and Solutions
Bridging today’s racial divides will require concerted effort across multiple sectors of society. Some promising approaches include:
National Reckoning on History – Americans need more education on the country’s full, unvarnished racial history in schools and public memorials/museums. A truthful accounting and redressing of past injustices is necessary for true reconciliation.
Community/Grassroots Dialogues – Local initiatives that facilitate conversations and relationships across racial lines can reduce prejudices. Intergroup contact is more constructive in collaborative activities with common goals.
Youth Outreach – Programming targeted at children and teens to promote interracial friendship and understanding can prevent feared difference from hardening into actual distrust.
Media Reform & Accountability – Traditional and social media platforms must combat disinformation and prejudice within their systems. More balanced and solutions-focused coverage of racial issues could ease tensions.
Criminal Justice Reform – Reducing racial inequities in policing, incarceration rates, and sentencing would help rectify institutional racism and restore minorities’ trust.
Diversity in Leadership – Seeing more minorities represented in politics, business, and the media could reduce feelings of exclusion and powerlessness among non-white groups.
Targeted Investment – Government spending targeted at improving economic opportunities and social services in disadvantaged minority areas could lessen inequalities.
Racial polarization will continue to be a defining challenge for America in the years to come. Closing both socioeconomic gaps between groups and ideological divisions will be difficult after centuries of racial strife. But with principled leadership and sustained dialogue across all levels of society, progress on healing these schisms can be made. More unites all Americans than divides them. By confronting racial injustices still deeply embedded in the system while reaffirming shared values of equality and justice, the country can move towards a more positive and inclusive future for all its diverse peoples.
Frey, W. H. (2018). The US will become ‘minority white’ in 2045, Census projects. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2018/03/14/the-us-will-become-minority-white-in-2045-census-projects/
Horowitz, J.M., Brown, A., & Cox, K. (2019). Race in America 2019. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2019/04/09/race-in-america-2019/
Jones, J. M. (2016). Gallup Vault: Americans Slow to See Racism as a Problem. Gallup. https://news.gallup.com/vault/198719/gallup-vault-americans-slow-racism-problem.aspx
Levin, B., & Grisham, K. (2021). Hate crimes in US rise to highest level in 12 years. ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/hate-crimes-us-rise-highest-level-12-years-80746171
Newport, F. (2018). The Racial Gap in Trump’s Approval Remains Large. Gallup. https://news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/237381/racial-gap-trump-approval-remains-large.aspx