America's race relations take hit after Zimmerman verdict, NBC News/WSJ poll finds

In the wake of the George Zimmerman case, U.S. views of race relations have taken a hit, and one-third of Americans say his acquittal in the death of Trayvon Martin has shaken their confidence in the legal system, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

The survey found deep divisions on the overall subject of race, along both political and racial lines, as controversy over the verdict has swirled from city street corners to the Oval Office.

Fifty-two percent of adults questioned said race relations in the U.S. are “very good” or “fairly good,” down from more than 70 percent who said that in NBC/WSJ polls between 2009 and 2011.


Fifty-four percent agree with the statement that America is a nation where people are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character – down from 60 percent in 2009 and 2010.

That question was a reference to one of the most famous lines from Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, delivered 50 years ago next month.

The poll was conducted after a Florida jury found Zimmerman, 29, who is of white and of Hispanic descent, not guilty of second-degree murder in the shooting death of Martin, 17, who was black. Zimmerman said he shot Martin, who was unarmed, in self-defense and his lawyers have said race played no role.

Related: NBC/WSJ poll: Faith in Washington hits a low

The case sparked debate over racial profiling and Stand Your Ground laws. After the verdict, protests sprang up several major cities and a group of clergy led by the Rev. Al Sharpton held vigils at federal building to demand the Justice Department ramp up a civil-rights investigation.

(Sharpton is the head of the National Action Network civil rights advocacy group and also hosts "Politics Nation" on MSNBC.)

Last week, President Barack Obama held a surprise press conference on the case in which he said African-Americans were viewing the verdict through the prism of being judged by their skin color.

“Those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida,” he said.

Read the poll here (.pdf)

Although some of the polling subjects were questioned before Obama declared that “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” the data reflected the racial divide he spoke about.


Just 19 percent of African-Americans and 46 percent of Democrats think Americans are judged by the content of their character rather than by their skin color.

By comparison, 54 percent of Latinos, 59 percent of whites and 65 percent of Republicans believe this.

Thirty-eight percent of African Americans say that race relations in the U.S. are good – versus 52 percent of whites and 60 percent of Latinos.

Asked directly about the Zimmerman trial, 32 percent of all adults say it decreased their confidence in the U.S. legal system, 17 percent say it increased their confidence and 48 percent say it had no effect.

Those numbers once again show a gap by race and party: 71 percent of African-Americans and 48 percent of Democrats say the trial decreased their confidence in the legal system -- compared to 35 percent of Latinos, 24 percent of whites and just 13 percent of Republicans.

“This is about as polarizing as it gets,” says Democratic pollster Jay Campbell, who helped conduct the poll with Republican pollster Bill McInturff.

The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted July 17-21 of 1,000 adults (including 300 cell phone-only respondents), and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.

NBC's Tracy Connor contributed to this report.