Poll: Feeling of progress rises among African Americans

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 12, 2010; 10:06 AM

Despite being hit especially hard by the bad economy, job losses and the high rate of foreclosures, African Americans' assessment of race relations and prospects for the future has surged more dramatically during the past two years than at any time in the past quarter-century, according to a new poll.

In a survey of American racial attitudes released Tuesday, researchers reported that the feeling of progress is driven in large part by the election of President Obama, along with a greater sense of local community satisfaction and a more positive outlook. The majority of African Americans say they are better off now than they were five years ago.

"These are dramatic findings," said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, which conducted the study. "We expected that there may be an Obama effect, and it was really quite dramatic -- which isn't to say that this era as measured in this survey means that all is fine between blacks and whites."

Large majorities of blacks continue to say that the country needs to make more changes and that the problems rooted in the country's history of slavery and segregation haven't disappeared. But there are many indications that African Americans feel there has been significant advancement.

Thirty-nine percent of blacks -- nearly twice as many as in 2007 -- say that the "situation of black people in this country" is better than it was five years earlier. That view holds among blacks of all age groups and income levels. Similarly, 56 percent of blacks and nearly two-thirds of whites say the standard-of-living gap between whites and blacks has narrowed in the past decade. Still, when asked about the problems facing black families, a majority said there were not enough jobs and there were too many problems with drugs and alcoholism, crime and poor public education.

The 112-page report is based on a telephone survey conducted in November among a nationally representative sample of 2,884 adults, including 812 African Americans. Pollsters attempted to root out Obama's role in the changed attitudes and also look at the role race has played in how he is viewed.

For example, about half of voters interviewed by Pew just after the 2008 election said they expected that Obama's election would lead to improved race relations, but fewer people today think it has. Among all adults, 36 percent now say the election made race relations better, while 13 percent said it made them worse and 43 percent say it has made no difference.

A majority of the African Americans who responded to the survey said they believe Obama's election has improved race relations, although that number too has shrunk since the heady days just after the election. Fifty-four percent of blacks say Obama being in the White House has helped, compared with 74 percent who believed it would help a year ago. Thirty-two percent of whites and 42 percent of Hispanics think race relations have improved since the election.

It is possible that the high expectations for racial conciliation did not hold in part because the first year of Obama's presidency has unearthed both racial frictions and difficult conversations that might otherwise have gone unspoken. One example is this week's revelation of a private exchange between Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and the authors of the new book "Game Changer," where the senator spoke well of Obama's chances for election because he was "light-skinned" and had no "Negro dialect." Reid apologized. Obama accepted the apology. Both of their responses were parsed in the media, dissected on blogs and discussed among friends and colleagues.

The online conversation reflects the view in the Pew survey that the broadly held hope for racial unity felt during the campaign has begun to fade.

Don Scoggins, president of Republicans for Black Empowerment, asked, "Where do we go from here?" on the blog Booker Rising. "Skin color aside, which within the Black community has perennially been a controversial topic, Senator Reid's apology . . . only confirms the unsaid feeling among many liberals who think they own everything related to civil rights and that the black community should be forever grateful yet [they] appear incredulous that an African American can speak proper English and actually embody what are regarded as white attributes even better than some of 'them'. "

Jill Tubman, a blogger on the liberal African American political site Jack and Jill Politics, said Reid's comments won't get a full airing because it is not a topic Obama wants to discuss. "I don't know what serenity prayer Obama says each day or what zen meditation allows him to breathe deeply with confronted with this kind of thing but he's going to need to share it with the rest of us African-Americans if he expects us to go along to get along like he does," wrote Tubman, who pronounced herself "deeply disappointed" by Reid.

As for Obama himself, the Pew survey found little to indicate that most Americans see race dominating the first year of his presidency. Only 13 percent of whites said Obama is paying too much attention to the concerns of blacks, and most blacks said Obama was paying the right amount of attention to their concerns. The president also remains personally popular with 65 percent of Americans, even though his job approval ratings have declined during his first year in office.

Still, support for Obama among African Americans is even higher: 95 percent view him favorably. Among whites, 56 percent have a favorable view of the president and 38 percent of whites say their opinion of him is unfavorable, including 21 percent with a very unfavorable view. Last year at this time, 76 percent of whites gave Obama positive ratings. Pew's study attributed Obama's downward slide among whites to partisanship. Among white Democrats, nearly nine in 10 have a favorable view of Obama.

Whites with racially intolerant views -- which are measured by their answers to questions about interracial marriages and perceptions about racial discrimination and other factors -- have a much more negative opinion of Obama than do other whites, Kohut said. But, the study also found that a number of whites with more tolerant views on race have an unfavorable opinion of the president.

"If you look at the downward trend in Obama's approval ratings, there's no sense that this has been driven by the issue of race," Kohut said. "The people who had trouble with his race didn't vote for him and were disapproving of him from the get-go and the broader trend of disapproval has occurred among a wider spectrum of people with regard to racial attitudes. Many of the people who are critical of him have liberal racial views."

The study also found that Americans tend to construct their own view of the president's race based on their backgrounds. In response to a question about Obama's racial identity, 55 percent of black respondents said Obama is black, while about a third said he is mixed race. Among whites, the pattern reversed. Fifty-three percent said he is mixed race, while just a quarter said he is black. Hispanics were even more inclined than whites to see him as mixed race; 61 percent identified him that way.

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