A Post-Racial America? New Optimism Among African-Americans     Print Email

Substantial Shift in Attitude Reflects Cumulative Reforms, Pollsters Say -- Not Just Obama Effect

African-Americans have become remarkably more upbeat about their personal prospects, according to a major national poll conducted at the end of President Barack Obama’s first year in office.

Fifty-three percent of African-Americans say life for their community is improving while only 10 percent predicted things getting worse. As recently as 2007, polls of the African-American community showed that 44 percent said things would get better and 21 percent expressed pessimism – nearly double the new figure.

A majority (54%) believe Obama’s election has improved race relations in America and 39 percent say "the situation of black people in this country" is better than it was five years ago -- almost double the 20 percent who said that in 2007.

"These are dramatic findings," according to Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, a highly regarded institute in Washington that specializes in analysis of polling data. He said that the new data provided evidence about a fundamental shift towards more positive views among African-Americans’ attitudes toward their situation in the United States.

Even though the recession has disproportionately affected their community, African-Americans are more upbeat about their prospects than at any other time since the civil-rights movement crested in the mid-1970s.

In another shift, most African-Americans now join with most whites in saying that the two racial groups have grown more alike in the past decade -- both in their living standards and core values. The new divergence, the poll showed, is among blacks: 52 percent said that the values of the black middle class and the black poor are becoming more divergent.

The election of President Obama has been widely credited with the increased optimism reflected across a range of issues, including race relations and expectations for further African-American progress. However, additional long-term factors have been at work, according to the Pew study accompanying the poll, which cited improvements in education, graduation rates and housing for African-Americans over the last 30 years.

Juan Williams, a prominent commentator, underscored the significance of the turnaround in the trend line on discrimination as shown in the poll. “I think now you have a larger cohort of blacks who say [that] we still face discrimination but things have gotten significantly better and are going to get better for my children, “ he said on National Public Radio.

One of most “astounding” findings, according to Williams, who advised the researchers in developing and interpreting the poll, was that 53 percent of African-Americans said that blacks who are not getting ahead are responsible for their own situation. Only a third of African-Americans now say race is the primary impediment for an African-American who is not succeeding in the U.S.

As recently as 15 years ago, the view would have been “exactly the opposite,” according to Williams, himself an African-American. Until recently, polls have shown most African-Americans blaming white racism for problems afflicting their community.

Writing about racial attitudes in a book published long before the election, Obama expressed his view that equality of opportunity and help for minorities have gained so much ground in the United States that African-Americans should stop blaming racism and discrimination as the determining factors in their lives. Instead, he wrote, they should focus on the need for taking more personal responsibility for improving their own lives and those of their children.

In this view, echoed by Williams, Obama’s election was a confirmation of changes that have occurred in American life that, cumulatively, have transformed the prospects for assimilation of this minority community.

His electoral victory was interpreted by many as heralding a post-racial future for America – and as a signal for improvements in race relations and ethnic minorities’ assimilation in Europe. That view has proved to be over-optimistic in some respects, but the ensuing year has seen a trend (confirmed by the poll) toward a decrease in racial tensions in the United States. In Europe, in contrast, conflicts around ethnic minorities have become more dramatic and been accompanied by the rise of extremist politicians in most EU countries.

By Sarah Geraghty