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Our outlook on COVID-19 is improving, but race relations continue to sputter

As vaccines continue to boost enthusiasm, no cure for race relations has been discovered.

In this July 13, 2020, file photo, a Black Lives Matter mural is visible in the Shaw neighborhood in Washington. Recent polling by Scott Rasmussen shows gains in public enthusiasm toward the pandemic, but Americans continue to show significant divides on race.
Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

When the new year of 2021 arrived, people around the globe were understandably thankful to put 2020 behind them. Yet, as I wrote in a column welcoming in the new year, many of the issues that wore us out in 2020 would continue to dominate the news.

That’s certainly the case at the moment, with stories of vaccines and easing restrictions dominating the news. But the dominance of pandemic-related stories may be coming to an end. The success of vaccines and growing access have convinced millions that that end is in sight. Polling I conducted last week found that, for the first time ever, a plurality of voters believes the worst of the pandemic is behind us. Thirty-nine percent (39%) hold that optimistic view while 31% still fear that the worst is yet to come. As vaccination increases, it seems likely that concern about the pandemic will continue to fall.

That’s certainly something to celebrate, but there is another issue lingering from 2020 that hasn’t been resolved in any way. The growing awareness of racial inequality was brought to the fore by the killing of George Floyd. It led to protests around the nation concerning issues that can’t be fixed with a vaccine.

That reality was brought home by some other polling from last week. I asked 1,200 registered voters nationwide how they would feel if they were alone and approached by a police officer. Among all voters, 67% said they would feel safe while 18% thought they would feel threatened. Most white (76%) and Hispanic (53%) voters said they would feel safe.

But the reaction from Black voters was starkly different. Forty-three percent (43%) of Black voters would feel threatened in that situation. Just 33% said they would feel safe.

Similar dynamics were found on other questions. By a 3-to-1 margin, voters nationwide believe that violent crime poses a greater threat to African Americans than police-involved shootings. But a plurality of Black voters disagree. By a 46% to 37% margin, Black voters say that police-involved shootings pose a greater threat. That discrepancy probably stems from the fact that Black voters perceive a lesser threat from violent crime and a greater threat from police-involved shootings.

Not only that, 79% of white voters have a favorable opinion of their local police officers. So do 71% of Hispanic voters. But only 51% of Black voters share that view.

You don’t have to believe that America is an inherently racist nation to see a problem with these numbers and the attitudes they represent. You can — and should — disagree with the 11% who think our nation was founded on principles of white supremacy and discrimination while still being troubled about the enormous gap between the views of Black Americans and the rest of the nation.

Unlike the pandemic, there is nothing the pharmaceutical companies can do to address this problem by year end. And there are no government policies or programs that will magically put this issue behind us before the next election or two. Instead, this is something the American people need to work on in their daily lives for the next generation or two.

Fortunately, while there are no magical fixes available, there are some encouraging signs.

On the important question of how to get from here to there, my latest polling found another piece of common ground. When it comes to making important decisions affecting people you care about and your community 70% of all voters trust everyday Americans more than political and economic leaders. That view is held by 70% of Black voters as well.

To the degree that the struggle for racial equality is a battle for the hearts and minds of the American people, the battle has largely been won. There is obviously a lot more work to be done in terms of translating the belief in equality to the reality of equality in day-to-day life. That is the challenge for our time. It is an essential part of the larger effort to move our nation ever closer to living up to its noble founding ideals.

Scott Rasmussen is an American political analyst and digital media entrepreneur. He is the author of “The Sun is Still Rising: Politics Has Failed But America Will Not.”