A single event can take on great symbolic importance and change people’s perceptions of reality, especially when the media devote nearly constant attention to that event. The big media story of the killing of Trayvon Martin and the trial of George Zimmerman probably does not change the objective economic, social, and political circumstances of blacks and whites in the U.S. But it changed people’s perceptions of race relations.
A recent NBC/WSJ poll shows that, between November of 2011 and July 2013, both whites and blacks became more pessimistic about race relations.
Since 1994, Americans had become increasingly sanguine about race relations. The Obama victory in 2008 gave an added boost to that trend. In the month of Obama’s first inauguration, nearly two-thirds of blacks and four-fifths of whites saw race relations as good or very good (here’s the original data). But now, at least for the moment, the percentages in the most recent poll are very close to what they were nearly 20 years ago.
The change was predictable given the obsessive media coverage of the case and the dominant reactions to it. On one side, the story was that white people were shooting innocent black people and getting away with it. The opposing story was that even harmless looking blacks might unleash potentially fatal assaults on whites who are merely trying to protect their communities. In both versions, members of one race are out to kill members of the other—not a happy picture of relations between the races.
My guess is that Zimmerman/Martin effect will have a short life, perhaps more so for whites than blacks. In a few months, some will ascend from the depths of pessimism. Consider that after the verdict in Florida there were no major riots, no burning of neighborhoods to leave permanent scars—just rallies that were, for the most part, peaceful outcries of anger and anguish. I also, however, doubt that we will see the optimism of 2009 for a long while, especially if the employment remains at its current dismal levels.