Growing numbers of blacks say they’re worse off than five years ago and don’t expect their lives to improve, a study released Tuesday shows. Black pessimism about racial progress in America, according to the study, is the worst it’s been in more than two decades.
The survey by the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based research organization, paints a mixed picture of race relations following Hurricane Katrina and the Jena Six case, in which six black teens were charged with beating a white student at a high school in the town of Jena, La.
It found that just one in five blacks, or 20 percent, said things were better off for blacks compared with five years ago; that is the smallest percentage since 1983, when 20 percent also made that claim. In-between, the percentage of blacks who said things had gotten better had grown, only to drop back to 20 percent.
Another 29 percent of blacks said things had gotten worse as opposed to staying the same, the largest number since 32 percent made that claim in 1990.
In addition, fewer than half of all blacks, or 44 percent, said they expected their prospects to brighten in the future. That’s down from 57 percent in 1986, during the height of the Reagan administration when the Justice Department actively sought to curtail affirmative action in favor of race-neutral policies.
Whites see black gains
Whites have a different view about black progress, according to the survey. Whites were nearly twice as likely as blacks to see black gains in the past five years. A majority of whites polled, or 56 percent, also said they believed prospects for blacks would improve in the future.
“As disturbing as these findings are, in one sense it’s surprising they are not actually worse,” said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of 200 groups including the NAACP and National Urban League. “Most African Americans believe the government response to problems is one of benign neglect rather than forceful action.”
Since the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision more than 50 years ago that outlawed segregation in public schools, blacks have seen substantial civil rights gains including the passage of laws in the 1960s and 1970s that sought, in part, to deter discrimination in housing and employment.
Decades later, blacks and whites are now at a crossroads, with the nation and even the black community itself divided over the best approach to achieve racial equality, whether by affirmative action to foster integration or more race-neutral policies to promote ideals of a colorblind society.
Income gap hasn't narrowed
Moreover, the income gap between black and white families has grown, according to a new study being released Tuesday that tracked the incomes of some 2,300 families for more than 30 years. Incomes have increased among both black and white families in the past three decades — mainly because more women are in the work force. But the increase was greater among whites, according to the study conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust’s Economic Mobility Project, which is separate from the Pew Research Center.
Among black men, incomes have declined in the past three decades, when adjusted for inflation. They were offset only by gains among black women.
In the Jena Six case, some black leaders said that only charging the black teens was questionable since the beating followed a number of racially charged incidents in which white students hung nooses on a school campus. Many poor and black people also faulted the Bush administration for its response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The Pew poll involved telephone interviews with 3,086 people in the continental United States, conducted in September and October. The margin of sampling error was 2.5 percentage points for the total sample, slightly larger for whites, blacks and Hispanics.
Among the findings:
- By a ratio of 2 to 1, blacks say the values of poor and middle-class blacks have grown more different over the past decade (61 percent to 31 percent). Most blacks, 54 percent, say the values of blacks and whites have grown more alike during the same period.
- Most blacks believe racial discrimination is pervasive when applying for a job (67 percent), renting an apartment or buying a house (65 percent), eating at restaurants and shopping (50 percent) or applying to a college or university (43 percent). That’s compared with whites who, by majorities of 2-to-1 or more, said blacks rarely face bias in such situations.
- While saying prejudice is widespread, blacks were less likely to believe discrimination is the main reason they cannot get ahead. Fifty-three percent of blacks said they are mainly responsible for their situation, compared with 30 percent who blame it on racial discrimination. As recently as the mid-1990s, black opinion on this question tilted in the opposite direction.
- Blacks are twice as likely as whites to view the death penalty as being applied in an unfair manner. On the other hand, a majority of blacks expressed confidence in police — 55 percent say they have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in police to enforce the law, compared with 49 percent who said this in 1995.
- Roughly eight in 10 whites, or 82 percent, say they have a favorable impression of blacks. A similar percentage of blacks, or 80 percent, hold positive views of whites; this is virtually unchanged from nearly two decades ago.
Terence Pell, president of the conservative group Center for Individual Rights, said the Pew findings suggest racial preference policies aren’t necessary, noting there are growing divisions among poor and middle-class blacks themselves. His organization is pushing for elimination of affirmative action at colleges and universities.
“The use of racial preferences in admissions has become a sacred cow,” said Pell. “In truth, these policies have not been that effective.”