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White House: Improving Race Relations Not Reflected in Polling

WASHINGTON — The White House said today that President Obama’s assessment of improving race relations in his farewell address wasn’t based on polling data that shows greater concern about race relations than when he first took office.

“Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society,” Obama told a large crowd in Chicago on Tuesday, adding that race relations “are better than they were 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, no matter what some folks say.”

At today’s White House briefing, press secretary Josh Earnest was asked about an ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll that gauges public sentiment on the state of race relations: 30 percent of people in 2000 said they were generally bad; in 2008, that number was 36 percent. Today, 63 percent say race relations are generally bad.

“Well, listen, I think that the president didn’t have polling data in mind. I think the president had in mind other metrics about the success that we’ve had in closing the achievement gap, in increasing the percentage of Americans from minority groups enrolled in college, for example,” Earnest said. “We’ve had some success in closing the wealth gap. There’s more work to be done, but we certainly have moved that in a positive direction.”

“I think what those polls reflect are actually a somewhat different phenomenon, which is simply that in a modern age with a — in a modern communications environment where everybody’s got a video-equipped cell phone in their pocket, that we all too often come face-to-face with the most graphic elements of the racial divide in this country that have yet to be healed, and that’s disconcerting,” he added. “In some cases, it’s even discouraging to some Americans, and I think that would explain some of the poll results that you’ve seen.”

Earnest said “the truth is those kinds of incidents, whether they are confrontations between law enforcement officers and young minorities or some — a response to those kinds of incidents that shows some significant civic discontent and even unrest, I think is disconcerting to a large portion of the population and prompts some people to despair about the state of race relations in our country.”

“The truth is, those kinds of things have been happening for generations — these kinds of confrontations between law enforcement and minorities. That’s not a new thing,” the spokesman continued. “The difference now is that we see it in vivid detail, and our conscience is aroused by that, both out of concern for the safety and security of our brave men and women who serve honorable, that serve to protect our communities, but also out of concern for the fair treatment and basic civil rights of people regardless of the color of their skin.”

“And the fact that that is not a concern that is just held by Hispanics and African-Americans, but rather a concern that the vast majority of Americans of all races hold, I think is also in and of itself an illustration of the progress that we’ve made in making our country as fair and as just as we would like it to be.”

Earnest added that “the passion in the president’s speech was rooted in not just an acknowledgement that there’s more work to do, but in a commitment to engage in the difficult work of addressing some of those challenges.”

“And the president looks forward to doing that as a citizen,” he said.