By Michael Finnegan

A half-century after the Watts riots laid bare deep racial divisions in Los Angeles, nearly two-thirds of California voters say race relations in the state are better than elsewhere in America even as they acknowledge persistent tensions, according to a new University of Southern California Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.

Most voters think race relations in California are stable or improving, and less than a quarter believe they are getting worse, the survey found. Younger voters are more optimistic than older voters about the future.

Yet after a string of fatal police shootings of black men in South Carolina, Missouri and other states, the poll found 43 percent of California voters think police generally are tougher on blacks than on any other group, up from 33 percent in September.

An overwhelming majority of voters _ of all races _ say blacks and Latinos still face substantial discrimination in California. And nearly half of black voters say they personally experience discrimination at least sometimes, as do more than a quarter of Latinos and Asians.

Overall, the survey captured a nuanced, and sometimes perplexing, picture of race relations in the state where the 1992 acquittal of Los Angeles police officers in the beating of Rodney King sparked the nation's biggest race riots since the 1960s, the era of the Watts uprising.

Nearly three-quarters of voters say race relations are excellent or good in their neighborhoods. But just under half hold that view of California as a whole, and barely a quarter say race relations nationwide are excellent or good.

Driving public opinion, pollsters said, is the growing diversity of California's population.

"When you know your neighbor and have more diverse communities, which California does, it becomes much harder to discriminate against other people," said pollster Dave Kanevsky of American Viewpoint, the Republican firm on the bipartisan polling team.

California's population is 39 percent white, 38 percent Latino, 14 percent Asian, 7 percent black and 2 percent Native American, with some overlap, according to the latest U.S. census figures.

Most of the voters surveyed said their neighborhoods were at least somewhat diverse. Nearly a third said they lived in very diverse areas. Most also said that diversity had a positive influence on their communities.

A distinction emerged, however, between racial and ethnic diversity in public venues and private settings.

A solid majority of voters said they often interact with people of a different race when running errands or going to movies, concerts or sporting events. But just 45 percent frequently mingle with people of another race in settings such as parties or picnics, and only 33 percent in their place of religious worship.

"Because California is such a multicultural society, we have much more interaction with people of other races and ethnicities," said poll director Dan Schnur, director of USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. "But even in a state like this one, it looks like most of those interactions occur by happenstance, rather than intentionally."

Poll respondent Christopher Minnich, a 26-year-old software engineer whose background is half Chinese and half white, moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco recently to work at a tech start-up. He said he sees California's culture as "very inclusive."

But although his bay-front neighborhood, Dogpatch, is highly diverse, he said, his workplace and the social gatherings he attends are not. "There's definitely a white concentration," Minnich said.

Another participant, Joyce Cox, 78, a retired child-care provider, welcomes the diversity of her hometown, Richmond, north of Berkeley. "A mixed jumbalaya of people is better," she said.

But to Cox, who is black, recent police brutality against African-Americans reflects the country's deteriorating race relations.

"I personally feel that the white people are trying to push back time and take blacks back where they used to be," she said.

More than three in four black voters in California said police were tougher on blacks than on other groups. More than half of Asian-American voters agreed, as did 42 percent of whites.

Overall, just 36 percent of California voters said police generally treat all groups the same way.

"If a cop is going to be a little bit more harsh on somebody, I don't think it's due to their race," said Leslie Ruff, 26, a white poll respondent who lives in Ramona, a small town on the far outskirts of San Diego.

Among Latino voters, 36 percent said police are tougher on blacks than on other groups, and 20 percent said they were tougher on Latinos.

The poll also reflected a shift in attitudes on immigration. It found 57 percent of California voters think immigrants in the country illegally have a mostly positive effect on the state's economy, up from 40 percent five years ago.

Pollsters attributed the change mainly to some Republicans abandoning their hard line against illegal immigration.

"There's sort of a wholesale shift toward understanding the benefits of racial diversity in any number of ways," said Drew Lieberman of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the Democratic firm on the survey team.

Whites and Asians face the least discrimination, according to the people surveyed. Just over half said Asians face discrimination at least sometimes, and 29 percent said whites face discrimination at times.

Beyond race and ethnicity, the poll found 63 percent of voters thought women in California face discrimination at least sometimes. It also found that 73 percent believed that gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people in the state face discrimination at least sometimes.

The telephone survey of 1,504 registered California voters by USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the Times was taken March 28 through April 7. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2.7 percentage points overall, and higher for subgroups.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times