One Race, Divisible

By Juan Williams
Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Conventional wisdom about black America is being turned on its head. 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.

The growing perception of two races is really a divide over values.

Over half of all Americans -- people of all colors -- believe that the values of poor and middle-class blacks are becoming more different. When the question is limited to black people, the answer is even more definitive: 61 percent say values are now more different between middle-class and poor blacks. The perception of a class divide in black America has increased nearly 20 points since a similar question was asked of black people in 1986.

There is a clear break with the historic convention that black people are one race. Racism, stereotypes and segregation laws long enforced the idea of a single black race by keeping down black people no matter their education and class. But just over 50 years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision set in motion the modern civil rights movement, with a unified black America pressing for political and social equality, there are significant numbers of people with dark skin, and racial discrimination battles, who say black people do not have enough common experiences and values to be thought of as one race.

This phenomenon is occurring inside black America as values held by black and white Americans are becoming more similar, according to 72 percent of whites and 54 percent of blacks. But the people who share values are middle-class blacks and whites. The black poor are the ones being left out, and they know it.

Consider: The black people most likely to say that blacks no longer share values across class lines have only a high school diploma or less education (37 percent), or they are lower-income (39 percent). Those most likely to say that all black people have many common values are college-educated blacks (78 percent) and black Americans who have incomes of more than $100,000 (66 percent).

But 70 percent of the same well-educated black people also acknowledge that they see values increasingly "diverging" between the black poor and middle class. That's different from the responses to a 1986 poll in which all classes of black Americans said differences over values were not diffusing the common black experience. Today both middle-class and poor blacks agree that racism is still a big issue for any black person. But they admit that the divide over values is splitting the community.

Today, only 20 percent of black Americans think life is generally better for black people than it was five years ago, the lowest positive response to that question in polls going back 24 years. Only 44 percent of black people expect life to get better; that's well below the 57 percent who predicted a better life for black people when the same question was asked in 1986 or the 70 percent who had a positive response in 1969 when asked about recent changes in the situation of blacks.

Another telling finding is the difference among black people in how much they feel "personal factors" instead of "racial discrimination" determine how far any black person can expect to get in life. The Pew poll found that 53 percent of black Americans agree that "blacks who can't get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition." That fits with poll findings that two-thirds of all Americans (71 percent of whites and 59 percent of Hispanics) feel that personal behavior -- values, education, hard work -- is what holds back those black Americans still trapped in poverty.

What the poll numbers can't say is that the question of whether blacks are a single race, sharing common values, is a political issue. The responses give some clues to this, however. A black liberal Democrat is 15 percentage points more likely than a political independent to say the black middle class has common values with the black poor.

But it is getting harder to use political and racial solidarity to hide the division inside black America. The values issue is at the heart of the argument over the future of the race.

This comes down to black Americans who believe in family, education and personal responsibility vs. those who point at "the man" or the "system" for the added weight on black Americans.

Juan Williams is a political analyst for National Public Radio and Fox News and the author of "Enough" and "Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965." He consulted on questions for the Pew poll cited in this column.

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