The State of New York Race Relations On MLK Day

Jan 19, 2015

As the nation celebrates the life and achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., WAMC takes a look at the civil rights movement and race relations today.

Siena College Research Institute Pollster Steve Greenberg says feelings about the state of race relations across New York are more negative today than they have been for the last several years.   “Only 31 percent of New Yorkers think race relations in the state are 'excellent' or 'good' compared to two-thirds of New Yorkers - 66 percent, who say they are 'fair' or 'poor.' Just a year ago it was 47 percent of New Yorkers who said they were 'excellent' or 'good' - 51 percent who said they were 'fair' or 'poor.'  And two years ago, we had a majority - 54 percent of New Yorkers saying race relations were 'excellent' or 'good' in the state and only saying they were 'fair' or 'poor.' ”

On the other hand, Alice Green, the executive director of the Center for Law and Justice in Albany, has a different perspective.   “I think that race relations in upstate New York, particularly the Capital Region community, are certainly improving. We have a very long way to go, but I think people are becoming more sensitive to issues around race and particularly issues like criminal justice. People are starting to try to understand and become much more involved in dealing with relationships between not only the police, but people in rural communities. There's some reason for hope, but as I've said we have many many issues to deal with so that we can come to understand each other. ”

Green counts among those issues equal education and voting rights.

King was a visionary who eschewed violence on his personal path to healing black-white relations in America. King recognized that despite gains toward equality, a great struggle was ahead.  "To use a philosophical analogy here, racism is not based on some empirical generalization; it is based rather on an ontological affirmation. It is not the assertion that certain people are behind culturally or otherwise because of environmental conditions. It is the affirmation that the very being of a people is inferior. And this is the great tragedy of it."  That's a clip from Dr. King's  "The Other America" speech, given in April 1967 at Stanford University, four years after his hallmark "I have a dream" speech. 

Much blood was spilled in pursuit of the dream of racial equality, dating back to slavery and the ensuing U.S. Civil War. One of the dream-catchers is U.S. Congressman John Lewis of Georgia. One of the leaders in the American Civil Rights Movement and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis was 21 in 1961 when he became one of 13 original "freedom riders," seven whites and six blacks who were determined to ride from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans in an integrated fashion, to end racial discrimination in public transportation.

When Lewis visited the Capital Region in 2013, I asked him to reflect on race and President Barack Obama's presidency.

Dave Lucas: “A lot of people of many colors throughout the country thought perhaps America had 'come to grips,' reconciled with its slave past, and that race was something that we no longer had to worry about. In your opinion, Congressman, did Obama change the dynamic? Are you more hopeful today than perhaps you were in 1961 when you set out on your journey?”

Congressman Lewis:  “I am much more hopeful today than anytime before. 1961 was a turning point. 1965. '63 when Dr. king gave his 'I have a dream' speech. We marched on Washington fifty years ago. 48 years ago we marched from Selma to Montgomery for the right to vote. But I'm still much more hopeful. People ask me all the time whether the election and President Barack Obama is the fulfillment of Dr. King's dream. I say 'No, it's just a down payment.' You can be hopeful, you can be optimistic, but you can be realistic to know that we still have a distance to go. We still have miles to travel. We come so far. We made so much progress. But we still have so much progress to be made.”

Siena survey respondents seem to affirm Lewis' beliefs.  Again, Siena pollster Steve Greenberg.  “Last year, two-thirds of black voters and about half of white and Latino voters thought race relations were 'fair or poor' in New York. Today, between 65 and 74 percent of black, white and Latino voters say race relations are only 'fair or poor' in New York. Clearly, events over the last several months, particularly Ferguson, Staten Island, have had a significant impact on how many New Yorkers feel about race relations. A majority of New Yorkers, including a large majority of those form New York City, believe the State Island grand jury should have indicted the police officer in the death of Eric Garner. Similarly, a majority of New Yorkers and a large majority of New York City voters say that people of color are not treated fairly by the criminal justice system in New York State. ”

85 percent of black voters and 72 percent of Latinos thought the Staten Island grand jury should have indicted the white NYPD officer. Whites were split. 44 percent said the officer should have been indicted. 43 percent said the grand jury was correct not to bring charges.

Credit SRI

57 percent of survey respondents said long time activist Al Sharpton has made police-community relations worse. But broken down along racial lines, 67 percent of whites said he makes things worse, compared to 19 percent of blacks who felt the same way.

Siena College polled 802 registered New York voters by telephone over four days last week. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.