Symbolic Events and Public Opinion

July 24, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

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 US.  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.

(Click on a graph for a larger view.)

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.** 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.*** In a few months, we 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 doubt that we will see the optimism of 2009 for a long while, especially if employment remains at its current dismal levels. 


* Journalist Martin Schram called the coverage, “a roadblock . . . stretched across all lanes of democracy’s information highway.  It blocked the far right lane, the center lane, and the far left lane. Which is to say, Fox News, CNN and MSNBC.”

** The percentages responding Very Good are so small – usually in single digits for both Whites and Blacks – that I combined the two categories.  For a .pdf with the original survey data, go here.

*** Language peeve. The term short-lived does not mean that something was lived for a short time. It means that it had a short life. Therefore, a trend is “short-lived,” pronounced with a long “i” just as someone with a short knife is short-knived.


Paulo said...

When was the data collected? Did they collect it once in November 2011 and again in July 2013? I think I would rather see this as a bar graph because the line graph suggests a trending downward of opinion rather than an abrupt change of opinion in the aftermath of a single shocking event.

Jay Livingston said...

Good point. I have revised the graphs to emphasize that it is based on discrete dates.