THE BLOG
01/17/2015 02:39 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2015

Ethnic Relations Are the 'Best They Ever Have Been', Which Is Why There Is So Much Acute Tension

It would be understandable for a person to think that ethnic relations in the U.S. today are as bad as ever. Follow the news in Ferguson, MO or New York City, read the numerous editorials being written on the ethnic divide in the U.S., witness the interruption of Sunday brunch and it might lead you to surmise that the U.S. hasn't evolved in this area. But, you would be wrong.

From the longest running study on the topic to President Obama's own opinion that ethnic relations are better, signs point toward a much more ethnically diverse, ethnically accepting United States of America. The rise in, and cultural acceptance of. inter-ethnic relationships -- once outlawed, now increasing -- is just one signal that things have changed for the better. So, why does it feel differently?

The answer may be in the notion of rising expectations. As one definition puts it "The idea that unfulfilled, rising expectations create unstable political situations has a long tradition in political and social analysis. As far back as the early nineteenth century Alexis de Tocqueville suggested that it explained why the strongholds of the French Revolution were in regions where standards of living had been improving. "Rising expectations around the state of ethnic relations actually aggravates tensions, because reality does not yet meet those expectations. There are plentiful historical examples that support this phenomenon. In 1900, there was a 1/10 chance that an infant survived to its first birthday. By 1997, the infant mortality rate had dropped 90 percent. Yet it was precisely around the time infant mortality reached its nadir that obstetricians saw their medical malpractice insurance skyrocket. Because standards had improved so much, OBs were held to even higher standards.
This isn't to say that rising expectations are a bad thing. It is part of what drives us to achieve more, part of what compels us to organize to demand more from our institutions and our fellow citizens. But we would be remiss to look at the world today and conclude that we are worse off than ever, that things have not improved. There has been dramatic improvement. The NYPD is under assault from its critics for abusive practices toward ethnic minorities, yet the police themselves are minority-majority (more non whites than whites) and 2013 marked that lowest number of shots fired at citizens (both black and white) ever recorded:

In 2013, criminals committed 1,103 shootings, wounding or killing 1,299 victims. NYPD officers, by contrast, fired their guns 40 times, despite having been dispatched 80,000 times to investigate weapons reports and having encountered guns and other weapons in more than 30,000 arrests.

That firearms discharge number is the lowest since the target department began collecting data. The police injured 17 people and killed eight -- again, a record low. Almost all those victims had extensive and serious criminal records; most had threatened the officer with deadly force. -- Heather McDonald

Despite the bleak portrait painted by the news these days of civil tension and racial clashes, we can actually take heart in the emerging signs of continuing progress heralded by this evidence of our culture's rising standards. Do we have ways to go? Sure. But, though it may not feel like it, the path to progress is indeed being traveled.