Percentage thinking the US has fulfilled MLK Jr.’s vision drops to pre-Obama election levels

When Barack Obama was running for President in April of 2008, slightly more than a third of the adults in the US thought that the vision of Martin Luther King Jr. as outlined in his “I Have a Dream” speech, had been fulfilled.  Just before Obama was sworn in as President in January of 2009, the perception that the King vision had already been fulfilled had swelled to nearly half of all adults in the US.  Perceptions of African Americans improved dramatically during this period increasing 30 points to 65% between April 2008 and January 2009.

But now, according to a recent Washington Post poll (August 2011), the election time gains have been entirely wiped out and people today are substantially less likely than at inauguration time, to perceive that the vision of Dr. King has been fulfilled.  In fact, the current percentage of African American reporting fulfillment has dropped back to its pre-Obama election level. Disappointingly, the decline among whites is even greater, with fewer whites today than pre-Obama election time (April 2008), considering the MLK vision fulfilled.

It is important to keep in mind how the question is asked in these polls:
"Martin Luther King gave his famous 'I Have a Dream Speech' at a civil rights march in Washington in 1963.  In your view, do you think the United States has fulfilled the vision King outlined in that speech, or don't you think so?:"  

The question essentially asks people to indicate their perception of vision fulfillment by responding either “fulfilled” or “not fulfilled.” It neglects to check whether people answering the question had an accurate understanding of the vision outlined within the “dream“ speech.  However, we know that peoples’ perceptions of reality, regardless of their factual knowledge, does matter (especially in election years) and are related to public sentiment. 

Optimism that the vision will eventually be fulfilled has also deteriorated—especially among African Americans.  A follow-up question in each of the polls conducted by CNN and now the Washington Post, asks people who did not believe that the vision had already been fulfilled, to indicate whether or not they thought it eventually would be attained. 

It is disheartening to see that adults in general are less optimistic today  than in April 2008 (avg. 15% less).   Furthermore, optimism among African-Americans, which had grown to 84% as inauguration time approached, dropped precipitously to 48% by the 2011 poll, - far below the 63% level reported in the pre-Obama election poll of 2008.  
One might wonder what is going on here?  Were the observed inauguration time increases in perception and optimism about King’s vision fulfillment simply artificial and spurious or were they real but perhaps ephemeral?   One may argue that the increases were artificial and merely an artifact produced by the overall raised level of expectations and “hope” associated with the Obama campaign and its messaging.

On the other hand, as Michael Fallig, Ph.D., SVP GfK CRNA has suggested: “It could also argue that the actual election results provided sufficient evidence to raise peoples’ perception and optimism about fulfilling Dr. King’s vision of better racial relations.  But events and policy decisions that took place after the election were more powerful factors that led people to reassess and change their earlier perceptions and optimism about the US having the capacity to fulfill the vision. 

Until evidence suggests otherwise, let us assume that the election of Barack Obama did have a positive and real impact on peoples’ perception and optimism about Dr. King’s vision.  However, let us also assume that events and/or policy decisions that took place post-election altered or moderated peoples’ perceptions as well as the relative strength of the election’s impact on perceptions and optimism about equality. 

Think about the events that might have more impact than the election: The tanking economy, home foreclosures in the news - hitting some communities harder than others, the nasty and confrontational debate over healthcare -- that appeared to have overtones of racism, the country’s continued high unemployment rate – punctuated by the increased disparity in African American vs. white joblessness, the negative feelings about the leadership role of the US – highlighted by our mediocre to poor global math and science rankings and stories in the news about the lack of support for public education funding and for unions that have their share of African American members.  The above might all be powerful contributors to the reduction in perception and optimism about the vision of racial equality espoused by Dr. King in his unforgettable speech.

A third argument could also be made: One might say that the policies of the President and this administration or the lack of success that the administration has had with moving forward with his grand agenda, has led people to call into question the capacity of the President and his policies to move the US forward.  If his policies are stalling, if there is no improvement in joblessness as an example, it is entirely possible that despite the positive role that his election has played in the perception that racial relations have moved forward, these lack of successes signal a stalling of progress and may reduce peoples’ perceptions and optimism that that Dr. King’s vision about racial relations in the US is attainable.

Tags: President Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Jr., I Have A Dream Speech (all tags)


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