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As black-white gap widens, Americans do not want to talk about race

Nearly 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a “separate but equal” doctrine that reinforced segregation, almost a quarter of Americans say it is OK to have a nation where the races are separate as long as they have equal opportunities.

Half a century after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of carving out “a stone of hope” from the mountain of despair in race relations, black Americans are five times as likely as white Americans to think about their race every day and more than three times as likely to report being treated unfairly because of the color of their skin.

And as the world commemorates the passing of Nelson Mandela, a man who forced his country to confront apartheid and led South Africa into a peaceful transition to a multiracial democracy, more than half of Americans, including six in 10 whites, say one of the best ways to improve race relations is to stop talking about race.

The new findings from the second wave of a major study on religion and race lay bare the dramatic and growing gap in racial attitudes and experiences in America.

We do not live in a post-racial nation, the 2012 Portraits of American Life Study suggests, but in a land of two Americas divided by race, and less willing than ever to find a common ground of understanding.

The Portraits of American Life Study is a massive effort involving thousands of face-to-face interviews exploring more than 600 aspects of religious life, with a particular focus on ethnic and religious diversity. The 2006 study was led by sociologists Michael Emerson of Rice University and David Sikkink of the University of Notre Dame. Emerson, co-director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice, also led the 2012 study, which drew responses from a random sample of 1,314 U.S. adults who participated in the first study. The studies received funding from the Lilly Endowment and Rice and Notre Dame.

The 2006 study showed a vast gap in perspectives on race among black and white Americans. In many key indicators, however, the gap increased by 2012.

Consider these findings:

Importance of race: In 2006, about four in 10 blacks said they were aware of what race they were every day. In 2012, nearly half of blacks, including 52 percent of black Protestants, said they thought about their race daily. Just 10 percent of whites reported the same degree of racial awareness in both waves of the study.
Role of government: In 2006, slightly more than a third of white respondents, including 42 percent of white mainline Protestants, said the government should do more to help minorities increase their standard of living. In 2012, just a quarter of white respondents, and only 21 percent of white mainline Protestants, favored such government action. In the same period, the percentage of black respondents favoring a greater role for government rose from 71 percent in 2006 to 79 percent in 2012.
Racial prejudice: Perceived racial injustice rose for both whites and blacks. The percentage of whites who said they had been treated unfairly because of their race in the last three years rose from 8 percent in 2006 to 14 percent in 2012. The percentage of blacks reporting prejudice rose from 36 percent in 2006 to 46 percent in 2012.

Given these increasing racial gaps, the apparent growing indifference to efforts for integration or reconciliation may be of particular concern.

For example, in 2006, 15 percent of white respondents and 21 percent of black respondents agreed with the statement, “It’s OK to have a country where the races are basically separate from one another, as long as they have equal opportunity.” In 2012, 24 percent of white respondents and 27 percent of black respondents backed such a separate-but-equal approach.

A great deal of research has suggested that increased understanding and contact among people of different groups reduces prejudice and increases civility.

In a campaign speech in 2008, then-Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama lifted up the different experiences and perspectives of black and white Americans. They are part, Obama said, of “the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through — a part of our union that we have not yet made perfect.”

A national dialogue on race is necessary, he said. “If we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education or the need to find good jobs for every American.”

Five years into the tenure of the first African-American president, however, America is even further away from having that type of conversation, the Portraits of American Life Study indicates.

Forty-five percent of white respondents in 2006 said one of the most effective ways to improve race relations was to stop talking about race. In 2012, 59 percent wanted to stop talking about race, including 69 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 65 percent of white Catholics.

The percentage of black respondents favoring less talk about race rose from 31 percent in 2006 to 39 percent in 2012, including 44 percent of black Protestants.

Many of the great leaders for racial reconciliation such as Mandela and King believed that change will not come by remaining in the darkness of misunderstanding, but in walking together toward the light of freedom and justice for all.

“With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood,” King declared in his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington.

Yet, the nation seems to have lost what King said was most needed in his historic talk 50 years ago – “the fierce urgency of now” in moving race relations forward in America

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