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On MLK Day, Poll Shows Racial Divide in Assessing Equality

54 percent of Americans agree with the statement that people are judged “by the content of their character” over race, while 45 percent disagree.
(FILES) In this August 28, 2014 file photo, "The Stone of Hope" statue is seen at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC. Today, January 19, 2015 is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, an American federal holiday marking King's birthday, January 15. Martin Luther King Day is a federal holiday held on the third Monday of January. It celebrates the life and achievements of Martin Luther King Jr., an influential American civil rights leader. He is most well-known for his campaigns to end racial segregation on public transport and for racial equality in the United States AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN / FILESMANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty ImagesMANDEL NGAN / AFP - Getty Images

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared his vision of America’s future, uttering one of the most oft-quoted statements about racial equality in the nation’s history: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

More than 50 years later, slightly more than half of Americans say they believe that dream has been realized – but fully seven in ten African-Americans believe that we aren’t there yet, according to a new NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll.

In the new survey, 54 percent of Americans agree with the statement that people are judged “by the content of their character” regardless of race, while 45 percent disagree. That split is unchanged from July 2013.

But the slim majority of those who agree includes just 29 percent of African-Americans and 45 percent of Hispanics. Seventy percent of African-Americans and 55 percent of Hispanics say that race is still a defining factor in how people are judged.

The poll comes after the police shootings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York sparked nationwide protests and a movement to address racial disparities in law enforcement actions.

Older Americans tend to be optimistic about the breakdown of racial barriers, with 64 percent of seniors and 58 percent of those aged 50-64 saying they believe King’s vision is lived out in everyday life now. But young people – aged 18-34 – are markedly more pessimistic, with 54 percent saying they disagree.

The nation overall has seen a dip in agreement with the “content of their character” hypothesis since early 2009, when President Barack Obama was inaugurated as the nation’s first black president.

At that time, six in ten Americans said the country defines people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, while 39 percent disagreed. In the January 2009 survey, 41 percent of African-Americans agreed with the statement, versus 56 percent who disagreed.