African Americans are more pessimistic about racial progress, poll finds

August 22, 2013

African Americans are increasingly pessimistic that progress is being made toward achieving the vision of racial equality outlined by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years ago, according to a survey released Thursday.

In a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center titled “King’s Dream Remains an Elusive Goal,” only 26 percent of African Americans said the situation for black people has improved in the past five years, and 21 percent said things have gotten worse. In a 2009 poll, 39 percent saw improvements, Pew said. Today, half said the picture is essentially unchanged.

Whites had a much more positive opinion of black progress, with 35 percent saying things have gotten better in the past five years. Even among whites, however, that share has fallen from 49 percent in 2009.

In the fifth year of the Obama presidency, Pew researchers and scholars of race relations attribute the pessimistic outlook among African Americans to the fading glow of Obama’s first term and the lingering struggle to emerge from the recession. Pew said sentiment is approximately where it was before the recession and Obama’s election.

“The euphoria over Obama’s election and reelection has worn off,” said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University. “A lot of people assumed that because a number of blacks were elected to high-profile offices — President Obama, [Massachusetts Gov.] Deval Patrick and [Newark Mayor] Cory Booker — there would be no more racism in American society. But it involves more than an election to bring about true racial reconciliation.”

Other polls also have noted both the buoyant optimism expressed by African Americans during Obama’s first term and the subsequent deflation in hope.

In a series of Washington Post polls, 60 percent of blacks surveyed in 2008, before Obama’s election, said King’s vision had not been fulfilled. That dramatically flipped by the president’s inauguration in 2009, when 65 percent of blacks said it had. But the pessimism had returned by 2011, with 56 percent saying King’s dream had not become reality.

The Pew survey was released at the beginning of a week’s worth of commemorative events marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where a multiracial crowd of 250,000 people heard King make his ringing “I Have a Dream” speech. Marches are scheduled for Saturday and Aug. 28, the actual anniversary, when Obama will speak where King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Several groups, including those that organized the 1963 march, plan to hold seminars and panel discussions with a forward-
looking agenda on issues they say must be tackled if progress is not to be reversed.

The poll and the anniversary events come shortly after an array of high-profile cases in which race was front and center — the acquittal of a man who shot unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin; a Supreme Court ruling that invalidated a key part of the Voting Rights Act; debate over racial profiling in New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy; and controversy after several celebrities and athletes used racial slurs. Reactions to the verdict in the Martin case were particularly polarized, with blacks much more likely than whites to see the shooting, and the shooter’s acquittal, as an example of deep-rooted racism in society.

The Pew survey also cited several economic statistics collected by the Census Bureau and other government agencies showing that, by most measures, the gap between black and white well-being remains stubbornly large. For example, census figures show that while the poverty rate for blacks has dived, from 42 percent in 1966 to 28 percent in 2011, it still is almost double the national level.

That is not what many people, particularly African Americans, expected in the second term of the country’s first black president.

“People look at their own lives and find their lives aren’t better and, in many cases, are worse,” said Lester Spence, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist who studies the intersection of race and politics. “With this economy, it’s like we’re still in the middle of a recession. It’s just corporate profits that have increased. Lots of people thought, ‘Oh, my God, we elected Obama again, and maybe this election will trickle down, have some sort of political effect.’ But when they test that idea against their own lives, they find it wanting.”

In the Pew poll, many African Americans — and a significant minority of whites — said blacks are treated less fairly than whites. About seven in 10 blacks told Pew that was particularly true in dealings with police and the courts, and one in four whites agreed with that assessment.

In addition, roughly half the African Americans polled cited racial disparities in virtually every aspect of daily life — in the workplace, in stores, in restaurants and in public schools, and while voting and receiving health care. Whites see things differently. Only about one in seven whites said blacks were treated less fairly than whites in those settings.

If there was a bright spot in an otherwise fairly bleak assessment, large majorities of blacks, whites and Hispanics told Pew that in interpersonal relations, different races get along reasonably well.

Eight in 10 whites said blacks and whites get along very well or pretty well, and seven in 10 blacks agreed.

Kris Marsh, a sociologist at the University of Maryland at College Park who studies the black middle class, said that might be a result of fairly limited social interaction between blacks and whites.

“As individuals report racial and ethnic progress on an individual level, individuals may continue to encounter racial and ethnic injustices and inequalities on an institutional level,” she said.

Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.

Carol Morello is the diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, covering the State Department.
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