Pew Survey of Blacks Reveals Mixed Opinons

18 11 2007

Earlier this week, Juan Williams declared, “conventional wisdom about black America is being turned on its head” due to the findings of a new Pew poll of black attitudes. Williams was specifically referring to the fact that a surprising high percentage of respondents believed “blacks are no longer a signal race.”

Nearly two out of five black people (37 percent) surveyed in a new Pew poll, done in association with NPR, said that blacks “can no longer be thought of as a single race.” Only half of all black people in the country (53 percent) say it is possible to think of blacks as one race. And young black Americans — ages 18 to 29 — are more likely than older blacks to say that blacks are no longer a single race.

Williams explains that this trend can be attributed to a different set of values that have everything to do with class. “61 percent of blacks say values are now more different between middle-class and poor blacks,” Williams writes. Polling data also suggested that the more educated and the more affluent the respondents were the more likely they were to say that middle-class blacks and middles-class whites have values that were more similar to whites.

But what does this really mean? Does this mean class trumps race? Or does this mean different levels of education and opportunity can divide people or at the very least account for more diversity of opinion than most of us would otherwise presume? Or does this mean that the political and economic interest among blacks are sufficiently different for this trend in difference of opinion to solidify in the future?

Well, at the very least some of the results in the survey clearly suggest that racial divisions among whites and blacks still exist on certain core issues important to black folk. Consider the survey’s findings comparing white and black attitudes of the criminal justice system:

Blacks are twice as likely as whites to see the death penalty as being applied in an unfair manner – just 24% of blacks see capital punishment as evenhandedly imposed, compared with 57% of whites. And they are far less likely than whites to say that police will enforce the law fairly, treat all races equally, and not resort to excessive force.

Additionally, 42 percent of whites had a “great deal of confidence” in police officers to “treat races equally” compared to only 14 percent of blacks. This is unsurprising in light of the racial disparities in incarceration rates among blacks and whites. Blacks make up only 12 percent of the overall U.S. population, an incredible 40 percent of all prison inmates. Whites on the other had make up 66 percent of the population and yet constitute only 36 percent of all prisoners. So much for the great divergence in opinion within black America.

Sharp racial divisions were found on two other critical issues to African Americans — housing and education. According to the authors of the survey,

While virtually no one among the public states a preference for less racial integration in neighborhoods, African Americans are far more likely than whites to favor more residential integration (62% of blacks vs. 40% of whites). Similarly, only a small minority of whites (23%) judge it more important to have racially mixed schools than to allow children to go to local community schools. By contrast, a majority of blacks (56%) say that racially integrated schools are more important.

It seems that on important questions of social policy there is far less divergence of opinion within the black community than there is convergence with whites. Of course it does not specify how middle class blacks feel versus middle class whites. But its probably safe to assume that whatever the numbers are on that question, they will likely pale in comparison to the 23 percent versus the 56 percent of whites and blacks respectively who believe racially integrated schools are important.

I was also confused after reading Williams piece in the WaPo as to why “young black Americans — ages 18 to 29 — are more likely than older blacks to say that blacks are no longer a single race.” This impress me as a rather odd and discouraging trend, only to be even more surprised by another odd development reported in the survey.

The civil rights movement is still seen as having an important impact on American society by a majority of both blacks and whites, but the number of whites who think this has declined substantially since 1993. Younger blacks are more likely to view the civil rights movement as still powerful than are those old enough to remember its early days.

Initially, I was taken aback by this factoid, but then realized that I could not say whether or not this was a good thing or not. Does this mean that our elders have grown cynical and pessimistic? Or does this mean that young black America is ready to carry on the torch.

But again there is still more agreement among blacks than there is among whites on the importance of the legacy of the civil rights movement. Overall, whites surveyed from 1993 – 2007 reported a decrease by 13 percentage points on the movement’s importance going from 66 percent down to 53. Blacks, on the other hand, reported modest spike in appreciation of the movement during that same period by 3 percent, going from 57 to 60 percent. (See graph below.)

But I am still left wondering if the divergence in opinion within the black community about whether or not its a single race is as important as the problems that plague it. And it is in this sense that we are left with more questions than we are answers.


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