Poll Reveals a Contradictory Portrait Shaded With Promise and Doubt

By Steven A. Holmes and Richard Morin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 4, 2006

Black men in America today are deeply divided over the way they see themselves and their country.

Black men report the same ambitions as most Americans -- for career success, a loving marriage, children, respect. And yet most are harshly critical of other black men, associating the group with irresponsibility and crime.

Black men describe a society rife with opportunities for advancement and models for success. But they also express a deep fear that their hold on the good life is fragile, in part because of discrimination they continue to experience in their daily lives.

This portrait of the divided black man emerges from a survey conducted by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University. The survey of 2,864 people, including a sample of 1,328 black men, aimed to capture the experiences and perceptions of black men at a time marked by increasing debate about how to build on their achievements and address the failures that endure decades after the civil rights movement.

In many ways, the outward and inward struggles of black men appear to reflect where the nation is on its journey toward racial equality -- unquestionably further along and, yet, at risk of moving backward.

Many are left behind: The suicide rate among young black men has doubled since 1980.

One in four black men have not worked for at least a year, twice the proportion of male non-Hispanic whites or Latinos. And trends suggest a third of black males born today will spend time in prison.

"I just get frustrated with my brothers. With black men . . . wasting life. But then, on the other hand, I wonder: Is there something in society that keeps us down?" said Edward Howell, 57, a D.C. resident who was interviewed in the poll.

But the harsh realities also obscure what the survey results illuminate so clearly: Black men in America are a diverse group, and the truth of their experience can be found as much among the ordinary lives of the vast middle as in the extremes.

"This country is filled with highly successful black men who are leading balanced, stable, productive lives working all over the labor market," said Hugh Price, former president of the National Urban League. "They're stringing fiber-optic cable for Verizon or working the floor at Home Depot. . . . It's a somewhat invisible story."

On the whole, survey respondents showed a powerful connection to a common history that crosses lines of education, income, age and geography, and stands in sharp contrast to the perceptions of many of their white counterparts.

The poll also documents how the enormous changes in society over the last generations have rippled through the lives of black men. But as the distance between the races begins to narrow, new tensions have emerged in the way black men perceive themselves and their lives:

· Six in 10 black men said their collective problems owe more to what they have failed to do themselves rather than "what white people have done to blacks." At the same time, half reported they have been treated unfairly by the police, and a clear majority said the economic system is stacked against them.

· More than half said they place a high value on marriage -- compared with 39 percent of black women -- and six in 10 said they strongly value having children. Yet at least 38 percent of all black fathers in the survey are not living with at least one of their young children, and a third of all never-married black men have a child. Six in 10 said that black men disrespect black women.

· Three in four said they value being successful in a career, more than either white men or black women. Yet majorities also said that black men put too little emphasis on education and too much emphasis on sports and sex.

· Eight in 10 said they are satisfied with their lives, and six in 10 reported that it is a "good time" to be a black man in the United States. But six in 10 also reported they often are the targets of racial slights or insults, two-thirds said they believe the courts are more likely to convict black men than whites, and a quarter reported they have been physically threatened or attacked because they are black.

· Black men said they strongly believe in the American Dream -- nine in 10 black men would tell their sons they can become anything they want to in life. But this vision of the future is laden with cautions and caveats: Two-thirds also would warn their sons that they will have to be better and work harder than whites for equal rewards.

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Samuel Thompson, 57, grew up in the South, coping with Alabama's Jim Crow laws. Despite it all, he went to college and became a special-education teacher in Chicago. But when he thinks of black men, he doesn't conjure up an image of older, accomplished black men such as himself. He thinks of young black men, and he is appalled at what he sees.

"They tend to goof off, and very few are going to college. I don't see in them a will to succeed," Thompson said. "They don't see the point of using good language. They emulate who they see on TV or on videos or who they hear on the radio."

Thompson said he was not surprised that so many black men in the poll adopted a harsh view of African American males as a group.

"That's the reality," he said. "The ones that sit back and blame things on other people, they're the ones who don't go very far. They just want sympathy and handouts."

Thompson was among the majority of black men in the poll who said the group's problems stem from its own failures. Black men were more likely than whites to express such sentiments. And while such negative views were held across the board, better-educated, affluent black men are most likely to criticize black men for not taking education seriously enough.

But the survey also suggests that this negative self-perception is in contrast to other features of black men's lives. In addition to the intense ambition displayed by black men, nearly half own their own homes. Two-thirds said they pray at least once a day, a much higher percentage than white men, and 59 percent said they work full time, compared with 66 percent of white men and 40 percent of white women.

Even young black men, the focus of the debate over black men's problems, defy familiar stereotypes. Nearly nine in 10 respondents ages 18 to 29 said they are either working or in school, the same proportion who reported that being successful in a career is personally important to them. The survey was not conducted in jails or prisons, where about 8 percent of all black men are incarcerated.

Sociologists and social psychologists say that black men's poor view of themselves may have its roots in several factors. Movies, music, television and the news media are full of unflattering images of black men, they say.

"We got this outside system putting this lens on black people, especially black men, that says 'toxic demon,' and this lens is transmitted to the general public," said Carl Bell, president and chief executive of the Community Mental Health Council, a clinic in Chicago that provides mental health services on the city's predominately black south and west sides. "You get black people buying into it, and black people saying we have no strengths, no redeeming qualities."

But the experiences of black men may play as large a role as cultural stereotypes in shaping their view of themselves. In the poll, one in four black men said they have been victims of a violent crime, the highest proportion of any group in the survey. Since the vast majority of crime occurs within racial groups, the fact that so many black men have been victimized by other black men may negatively influence the way they perceive the group.

Regarding the obstacles black men face and their prospects for the future, whites were the most optimistic. Black women tended to be the most pessimistic, even more than black men, with only 44 percent of black women saying that now is a good time to be a black man in America . Black women were also just as likely as their male counterparts to see the economic system as biased against black men.

"I've worked in corporate America for 20 years, and I see a lot of white males, but I don't see a lot of black males," said Theoloa Dubose, 45, a projects administrator from Stone Mountain, Ga. "I see more black women than black males."

Asked why, she replied, "Because of prejudice." Black women, she said, are "less threatening than black men."

But black women were not entirely sympathetic. More than half of black women said one big reason the average black woman is better-educated and makes more money than the average black man is that black women simply work harder.

More positive views can be hard to come by, even among black men.

Reggie Hall, 36, a Web site developer in Cleveland, says that when he gets together with friends and the talk turns to black men, rarely does a group compliment pass their lips.

"I can't remember the last time I heard a good word about black men," Hall said. "If we're out in public and see young black guys -- the way they talk or act, we always discuss that lack of respect. . . . I can't remember the last time we said anything positive about black men as a whole. It's always about isolated individuals. But, as a group, no."

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Worries, Experiences, Values

Despite their clear achievements and general optimism about their prospects, black men worry more than virtually everyone, the survey found. About four in 10 black men said they are fearful they will lose their job, nearly double the proportion of white men who said the same thing. Even more affluent, better-educated black men are far more anxious about being fired or laid off than their white male and white female co-workers.

More than half of all black men said they fear they or a member of their family will get AIDS, nearly triple the percentage of white men. Six in 10 said they worry that they'll be treated unfairly by the police, and more than a third said they fear they will be arrested -- fears that hardly trouble whites. A good job and education do little to ease these fears: college-educated, upper-middle-class black men were about twice as likely to say they are worried about being arrested, losing their jobs or falling victim to violent crime as upper-class whites.

"With a black man, first you're black. And that carries a lot of baggage -- false and real," said Jerome Tucker, 52, an entrepreneur in Upper Marlboro.

This worries gap sometimes exists in areas where the survey results suggest it shouldn't. When asked if they had been laid off or fired, an equal proportion of higher-income, college-educated whites and blacks reported that they had.

"There is racism in this country," agreed Doug Ford, 42, of Havana, Fla., and a contract administrator for the state's Department of Children and Families, one of the black men interviewed in the survey. "Unfortunately, the majority of black men and women tend to seek out the racial issue where there may not be a racial issue. That comes from an historical consciousness as a black community that now imposes its own burden on black men."

Ford said black men are victimized twice: once by acts of racism that are less frequent today but still too common, and then again by the self-doubts and suspicions that are the living legacy of more than 300 years of legal and de facto discrimination.

For some black men, such concerns are background noise that occasionally prompt a wince. But for others, these suspicions paralyze them into inaction, build barriers where none exist and prevent them from seizing "the real opportunities that are out there," Ford said.

"Worries can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Too many black men go into job interviews convinced they will fail. So they do. They don't try on the job because they believe they won't get promoted. So they don't," Ford said.

But in other areas, the survey suggests that the concerns of black men are not misplaced or exaggerated. Six in 10 black men said a close friend or family member has been murdered. Seven in 10 said someone close to them has gone to prison or jail. AIDS, once a disease almost exclusive to white men, now disproportionately ravages the black community; here the worries gap, if anything, understates the relative incidence of HIV-AIDS among blacks and whites.

Worries about discrimination also are rooted in reality, the survey suggests. One in four black men said they have been physically threatened or attacked because they are black. Half said they have been unfairly stopped by police because of their race, allegations supported by studies that found black men were far more likely than whites to be stopped by police and have their cars searched but no more likely to be carrying contraband.

While college degrees and higher salaries ease many of life's burdens for whites, they do not always shield black men from painful experiences, the survey found.

Among blacks with college degrees and household incomes of $75,000 a year or more, six in 10 said someone close to them had been murdered and six in 10 said a family member or close friend had been in jail or prison -- similar to the reports of working-class, less-educated black men. Three in 10 have been physically threatened or attacked in their lives because of their race, again no different from less-advantaged black men.

If anything, the survey suggests that better-educated black men experience more direct racism than those with fewer resources. For example, 63 percent of educated, upper-middle-class black men said they have been unfairly stopped by police, compared with 47 percent of less-advantaged black men.

From the shared experiences and worries of black men have emerged a set of priorities that are very different from those of white America. Three in four black men said they highly value success on the job, fully 20 percentage points higher than white men. Black men also placed a far higher value on "being respected" by others, as well as standing up for their racial or ethnic group.

"We had to work together in the past; it was just us, together. That's how we got rid of the problems. That's how we will solve the problems in the future," said Phillip Hayes, 39, who is disabled and lives in Martinsville.

Being respected is important to Hayes, as well. "We were not respected [as a race] for so long. As individual people we were invisible. It comes from that."

But he worries that this legacy may now have deadly consequences. Some young black men "have gone too far -- they're getting themselves killed over nonsense."

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"It's a good time for black men, and things will only get better," said Tyrone Haskins, 20, a sophomore majoring in social work at Virginia Union University. "America is changing, it's far from perfect, but more people are sharing more opportunities every year. . . . The future seems bright for black men."

Haskins is one of a substantial majority: Despite the problems and broad anxieties, six in 10 black men said it is a good time to be a black man in this country. Eight in 10 said they have a better life than their parents. About as many feel optimistic about their futures.

Optimism about the future is not shared equally by all black men. According to the survey, about one in six black men have largely given up, expressing consistently pessimistic views about their lives and what the future holds for them and for black people generally.

Still, more than twice as many black men are consistently hopeful and optimistic about themselves and their futures, while the remainder offer a more mixed but generally positive view, the survey shows.

"Things are better, but you still have to fight for everything you get," said Calvin Jackson, 61, a sheet-metal worker in Kansas City, Kan. "You still have to be better at your job than anyone else if you're a black man. We had trouble here with our local union. We found out we had the same number of black journeymen now as we had in 1969. How does that happen? Nobody knows, but you have your suspicions.

"Is it a good time for black men? Is it bad? It's right in between," said Jackson, who allows he is cautiously optimistic that the future will be better, though not necessarily easy.

Assistant director of polling Claudia Deane and staff writer Stephen A. Crockett Jr. contributed to this report.

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