By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Tiffany Cartagena said she was eating with her mixed-race girlfriend at a restaurant in Ohio last month when she heard nearby diners remark about the "monkey" at the next table.
Denver resident Gwendolyn Mami, an African-American, was on a January flight when another passenger proclaimed President Donald Trump's proposed border wall would stem the flow of "those people", she recalled. Allen Dees, a white Louisiana house painter, said two black men hurled racial slurs at him in March and told him to get out of their neighborhood.
As Trump nears his 100th day in the White House after a campaign punctuated by his inflammatory comments about Muslims and immigrants, a number of Americans say U.S. race relations are deteriorating, according to a new Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll.
The poll, taken from March 28 to April 3, asked more than 2,800 adults to rate the danger of racism and bigotry in America. About 36 percent gave it the worst rating possible, saying they considered racism and bigotry an "imminent threat" to the country. That is up a few points from the 29 percent who answered the same way two years ago. (For a graphic on poll results see http://tmsnrt.rs/2oQAD54)
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the poll results.
A majority of the nearly two dozen poll respondents reached by Reuters, including Cartagena, Mami and Dees, said they have recently sensed an unsettling rise in racial hostility - or at least a greater willingness by some Americans to express it.
"I've seen a lot of people become more bold with their hatred and discrimination," said Cartagena, 29, who is white. A truck dispatcher in Youngstown and an unaffiliated voter, she cast a write-in vote for Senator Bernie Sanders for president in November.
Not everyone sees a shift. While about one in four Americans surveyed in the Reuters-Ipsos poll said "people in my community get along worse than before," a majority said they had not noticed much change.
"People are always squabbling about things. It's about the same as it was before," said Miriam Vroman, 84, a retired hospital supply worker in West Valley City, Utah, who voted for Trump.
Democrats surveyed in the poll were more negative about the perceived threat from racism and bigotry than Republicans.
Still, respondents from both major parties appeared to be more concerned about racism than two years ago as racial, ethnic and religious tensions have flared across the country.
A spate of highly publicized police shootings of African Americans has strained community bonds. So have deadly mass killings in Orlando and San Bernardino, California, by assailants inspired at least in part by Islamic extremist groups.
Some Trump critics say he stoked the enmity with his incendiary campaign rhetoric, including vows to ban Muslim visitors and deport millions of undocumented immigrants.
Civil rights groups including the Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League reported a sharp uptick in incidents targeting minorities after Trump's election.
Trump has made efforts to close the divide. In a post-election television interview in November he said he was saddened by acts of bigotry done in his name and called on perpetrators to "stop it."
As president, he invited the Congressional Black Caucus and heads of historically black colleges to the White House. He also condemned anti-Semitic violence.
'I CAN BE TERRIBLE'
Still, some say the damage is done, and that Trump has emboldened some people to act on their darker impulses.
"People look to emulate the president. So they think 'if he can be terrible, I can be terrible'," said Sarah Riffel, 24, a white law-school student in Houston who voted for Clinton.
Several poll respondents expressed growing unease about race and civility, even if they had not directly experienced or seen racist acts.
"People talk to me differently since the election, I get different looks, different comments," said Clifton McMillan Jr., 31, a black food delivery worker in Helena, Alabama. "A lot of people are on edge."
Mami, the airline passenger, says she's become more guarded in public in recent months. "People feel there is no need to be politically correct anymore," said Mami, 64, a higher-education administrator.
It's not just minorities who say they're feeling unnerved. Dees, the painting contractor from Many, Louisiana, a town of about 2,700 people, said he sensed rising anger among black residents after Trump's unexpected victory.
"You can just feel the tension building, like something is fixing to come to a head," said Dees, 46, who did not vote in the November election. "There is more of a hatred toward white people."
The poll found 46 percent of Democrats surveyed said racism and bigotry pose an imminent threat to the country, up from 35 percent two years ago. That figure was sharply lower for Republicans: 27 percent now compared to 24 percent in 2015.
The Reuters/Ipsos poll was conducted online in English in all 50 states. Respondents answered a series of questions, including one asking them to rate their concern about racism and bigotry on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 meaning "no threat" and 5 meaning "imminent threat."
The poll gathered responses from 1,268 Democrats and 1,008 Republicans. It has a credibility interval, a measure of accuracy, of 2 percentage points for the entire group, 3 points for Democrats and 4 points for Republicans.
(Additional reporting by Chris Kahn in New York; Editing by Jason Szep and Marla Dickerson)