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As views on race relations dim, Obama grasps for historical context

After President Obama was sworn in as the nation's first African-American president, Americans had a bright outlook on race relations: 66 percent of Americans in April 2009 said race relations were generally good.

More than five years later, the latest CBS News poll shows, views on race relations have dimmed dramatically. Just 45 percent say race relations are generally good, the lowest figure in CBS News polling since 1997.

The figure has also dropped 10 points since this past spring, before the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City raised the national consciousness about persistent racial inequities in the justice system.

"It's hard to feel optimistic about race relations right now," Prof. Richard Ford, expert on civil rights and anti-discrimination law at Stanford Law School, said to CBSNews.com.

While public perception on race relations has gone up and down, Ford noted that the recent stories of police misconduct are "frustratingly similar" to past abuses, and the conversations taking place now have been had before.

"Everyone swore we would learn from the Rodney King incident in the 1990s, but here we are in 2014 with two similar cases having pretty much the same discussion," he said. "We need broad-based institutional change-- from our approach to crime prevention to more certain accountability for abuses."

The Obama administration is taking steps to resolve the systemic racial problems in the justice system. In the meantime, as people look to the president to explain the current strife and his proposed solutions, Mr. Obama has taken an academic tone and attempted to put the issue in a bit of historical context.

"This is something that's deeply rooted in our society, deeply rooted in our history," Mr. Obama said in a recent interview with BET. "But the two things that will allow us to solve it: Number one, is the understanding that we have made progress, and so it's important to recognize that as painful as these instances are, we can't equate what's happening now with what was happening 50 years ago. If you talk to your parents, grandparents, uncles, they'll tell you that things are better."

Clearly, the United States has made progress on issues of race since the Jim Crow era. But the tension between police forces and minority communities in the United States has been well-documented for decades.

In 1961, the Supreme Court limited police power after the recently-deceased Dollree Mapp, an African-American woman, challenged charges against her that were based on illegally-seized evidence.

In 1976, 24-year-old Adolph Lyons sued the Los Angeles Police Department for violating his rights when they pulled him over and placed him in a chokehold, forcing him to pass out. Lyons took his case all the way to the Supreme Court but lost.

Poll: Race relations in the U.S. at new low

"These questions of police brutality, the use of illegal searches, the way the police regulates communities of color, those have been with us for a very long time," Prof. Guy-Uriel Charles, director of the Duke Law Center on Law, Race and Politics, told CBS News.

As the "war on crime" started in the 1970s, leading to more militarized police forces and increased criminal penalties, minority communities were disproportionately affected.

"Even as we had improvement in overall racial attitudes, we also had a law and order crackdown that disparately affected racial minorities-- especially those in poor urban neighborhoods," Ford said. "This led to worsening relations between police and minorities."

In some ways, improving attitudes about race have made the more persistent social problems harder to root out, historians say.

"Whereas few publicly argue today that Jim Crow was justified, no one can dispute that law enforcement has a legitimate interest in ensuring public safety. Officers sometimes are justified in using force," Prof. Tomiko Brown-Nagin, a constitutional law expert at Harvard, told CBS. "The question is whether law enforcement officers police fairly, and whether there is accountability in the criminal justice system when officers engage in misconduct. "

As the first African-American president, raising those questions is a challenge for Mr. Obama.

"Racial subordination engulfs not only young black men, but also a black president who is powerless to take a strong position on racial issues," Prof. Roy Brooks, a civil rights expert at the University of San Diego School of Law, told CBS. "The fact is, most Americans, both black and white, are ignorant about racial dynamics in this country."

Consequently, the nation finds itself repeating conversations once a major controversy sparks it. As Mr. Obama told BET, "a country's conscience sometimes has to be triggered by some inconvenience."

"I think there are a lot of good, well-meaning people -- I think there are probably a lot of police officers -- who might have looked at [the circumstances of Eric Garner's death] and said that is a tragedy,"Mr. Obama said, "and we've gotta to figure out how to bring an end to these kinds of tragedies."

Prof. Harold McDougall, a civil rights expert at Howard University School of Law, told CBS that "with our short attention span, a lot of people think these issues should be solved within a week, the president should sign some executive order and be done with it."

The necessary long-term solutions may only come as the president hears from demonstrators in Ferguson, New York and nationwide. That sort of activism, of course, also has historical precedent. In the World War II era, the African-American union leader A. Philip Randolph built enough grassroots pressure to encourage FDR to ban discrimination in the defense industries. He then pressured Truman into ending segregation in the military.

"There's a responsibility in the minority community to stand up," McDougall said.