A Jan. 11 Washington Post article reporting other findings of the same poll of city residents contained an error because of a transposition of two figures. Those interviewed were asked this question: "Which of these two statements do you tend to agree with more: (a) The government should not give benefits to black people that it doesn't give to white people in similar circumstances, or (b) Because of past discrimination, blacks who need it should get some special treatment from the government that white people in similar circumstances cannot get." The correct result had 57 percent of those interviewed agreeing with statement (a), and 30 percent agreeing with statement (b).
The nation's capital is a city of opinions sharply divided along racial lines, with blacks and whites holding clearly differing perceptions about the quality of life and race relations here, according to a Washington Post poll.
The Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders concluded after the riots of 1968 that the United States was drifting "toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal."
The Post poll, taken last month, indicates that 12 years later a similar situation exists in Washington, even though the majority of those interviewed -- including blacks and whites -- said race relations in the District have improved in the last few years.
Washington is a city often said to have abandoned its not so distant segregated past and become a bastion of liberalism, with a hefty segment of upwardly mobile, middle-class blacks and an overwhelmingly black local government.
Indeed, the poll confirmed that housing integration has sharply picked up in the city. While some neighborhoods continue to be segregated, it was common for interviewers to find whites and blacks in almost all sections of the city.
Nevertheless, the poll found that:
Blacks, by a margin of nearly 4 to 1, think that politically active whites are regaining control of the city or never lost it -- despite the predominance of black elected officials ushered in by home rule. This notion, which essentially parallels a belief in a white conspiracy sometimes called the "Master Plan," was almost completely discounted by whites who were interviewed.
In a city with a population that is 76 percent black, the majority of all those responding appeared to disagree with the premise of affirmative action. Ironically, lower-income blacks interviewed expressed the strongest opposition to this concept of giving special treatment to blacks to compensate for past discrimination.
While blacks are less confident than whites that the influx of whites into renovated housing in the city is a good thing, they tend to feel that the influx makes for better neighborhoods and better race relations. The poll found that among blacks, the higher the income, the more likely a person is to welcome whites into renovated neighborhoods.
Several community spokesmen, including businessmen, politicians and civil rights lawyers, responded to the findings of the poll, with some saying that continued economic disparity among blacks and whites is as much a cause for alarm today as it was following the riots.
"There is a growing schism in which the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer," said R. Robert Linowes, former president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "The lack of economic development related to unskilled and semiskilled workers, the continued influx of the rich and dislocation of the poor -- all, in my mind, spell the possibility of some major upheavals in this city."
Jerome W. Page, president of the Washington Urban League, noted that many middle-income blacks had moved to the suburbs in recent years, leaving the city with a larger proportion of low-income blacks. Nevertheless, the basic racial delineations remained, he said.
"Personally, I see the city as two-tiered -- a double society, one black and one white with a few 'beautiful' blacks who can move in and out of both," Page said.
The Post poll presented a vivid portrait that in many respects confirms that view. More than one-third of the blacks interviewed -- 36 percent -- reported having total household incomes of less than $12,000 in 1980. By contrast, only 17 percent of the whites interviewed reported similar incomes and a good number of the lower-income whites were students, while only a small portion of the blacks were students.
At the higher income levels, 19 percent of the blacks interviewed and 40 percent of the whites said they had annual household incomes of $30,000 or more in 1980.
Fourteen percent of the blacks and five percent of the whites interviewed said they were unemployed or laid off from their jobs.
"These are very dangerous times," said the Rev. A. Knighton Stanley, pastor of the People's Congregational Church and a civil rights activist during his college days at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro. "The brothers on the street are mad at all of us. The '14th Street Gang' will not leave any of us untouched -- regardless of color. 'The 'elite' brothers will try to join with the whites, but whites will never give them the distinction."
The poll, in which 1,078 Washingtonians were interviewed by telephone from Dec. 11 to Dec. 18, asked several questions pertaining to race relations in Washington. One of them, simply stated, asked respondents if race relations were better these days than they were five or six years ago "or worse, or what?" Most blacks and whites -- just over half in each group -- said that relations were "better."
Another question asked: "Do you tend to agree or disagree with this statement: Politically active whites are regaining control of the District of Columbia government?" An overwhelming 63 percent of all blacks agreed. Nearly 60 percent of the whites polled disagreed, while 16 percent agreed and 3 percent said they had never lost control.
Overall, 46 percent of those interviewed agreed with the statement, and 5 percent said whites had never lost control. Thirty-two percent disagreed, while 17 percent said they did not know.
"There is no question that the city is in a state of change and I must confess that it is not something that I anticipated," said Morton Liebowitz, former head Voice of Informed Community Expression, a multiracial civic group formed after the riots of 1968.
"I do not believe in any 'conspiracy' against blacks," he said. "On the other hand, I know that blacks have been conspired against in the past and history may have conditioned many of them to feel that things have been arranged to their detriment."
When asked if white influx into renovated neighborhoods in Washington was "a good thing," whites expressing an opinion said yes by a 4-to-1 margin. But blacks were sharply divided, with 39 percent saying no, 34 percent yes and the rest saying it was a mixed blessing or offering no opinion. Among blacks, those on the lower end of the economic ladder tended to be more opposed to the influx, and those on the higher end were more likely to favor it.
The respondents were also asked, "Would you say that influx makes for better neighborhoods or not?" and "Would you say it makes for better relations between blacks and whites or not?" By margins of roughly 4-3, blacks answered affirmatively on both questions. Whites felt basically the same about improving race relations, and were far more convinced than blacks that the influx betters neighborhoods.
One of the most intriguing findings of the poll came on the question of affirmative action.
Respondents were asked: "Which of these two statements do you tend to agree with more: The government should not give benefits to black people that it doesn't give to white people in similar circumstances, or, Because of past discrimination, blacks who need it should get some special treatment from the government that white people in similar circumstances cannot get.
Of the blacks interviewed, 56 percent agreed with the first statement, and 33 percent with the second. Of the whites, 58 percent said no while 31 percent said yes. Overall, 57 percent responded in favor of special treatment, while 30 percent opposed it. Twelve percent expressed no opinion. In fact, disapproval of affirmative action -- or at least of the question posed in the poll -- seemed more than almost any other question to elicit the same response from both races.
Stanley said he was not surprised by those findings. "I have detected a very conservative shift in the attitudes of many blacks," he said, "particularly older blacks about to retire from the (civil service) system.
"In other words, there are people who have dealt with the system as it is and don't wish that it would change so others can benefit. And there are still others who have simply given up believing that something productive can come out of the system for blacks."
He also said, "Black people are perhaps the only Americans as a group who have absorbed the founding documents of this country to the extent that they believe everyone should be treated the same way -- even when there is the need for reparations."
John Payton, a lawyer who handles civil rights cases in Washington, said he was "surprised" by the responses on affirmative action.
"I think there is a misunderstanding about affirmative action that has been fueled by cases like Baake which suggests that blacks are getting something for nothing or something they don't deserve. This is very erroneous," he said.
In ranking Washington as a place to live, most blacks saw it as average at best, while most whites saw it as above average or as one of the best cities in the country. Lower income blacks tended to be more pessimistic about the city than higher income blacks.
The Rev. Ernest Gibson, pastor of the First Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church and head of the Washington Council of Churches, linked the findings of the poll to pessimism over a "new mood of conservatism" in the city.
Undergirding the feelings of blacks is the political swing to the right," he said. "The Kerner Report said we were moving towards two societies and nothing has happened in the last few years to disprove that. Our nation is being victimized by its slave history, and we just have not found a way to overcome the divisiveness of that history."