A New Era in Race Relations?

What do the polls say about how blacks feel about their lives, the state of race relations, and the new president? The surveys show significant progress with a considerable distance yet to go.

Senior Fellow
Karlyn Bowman

In 1926, historian Carter Woodson initiated the February celebration that has become Black History Month. He chose this time of year because it marked the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, who, by ending slavery through policy and abolitionist advocacy, significantly changed the lives of African Americans.

Eighty-three years after the initial commemoration, though, how do African Americans view their lives? Further, what do they think about the state of race relations and the first African-American president?

Evidence from polls points to considerable progress in these regards--but also shows we have some distance yet to go. To be sure, Obama's election has lifted the spirits of African Americans, but a solid majority of them, 59%, do not believe it symbolizes the end of racial barriers.

Surveys do reveal that African Americans are generally satisfied with their own lives. Eighty-eight percent of non-Hispanic whites, compared to 80% of blacks, gave that response in Gallup's 2008 Minority Relations poll.

Nearly half of blacks said that they would be better off if they had been born white.

And discrimination still exists. When asked about their experiences in a January ABC News/Washington Post poll, 20% of blacks said they personally felt that they had been denied housing they could afford because of their race. Thirty-five percent said they were denied a job; 37% had been stopped by police and 60% had felt unwelcome in a store--all for racial reasons.

There are still big gaps between blacks' and whites' perceptions of available opportunities in their communities. Roughly three-quarters of whites, compared to 43% of black respondents, told pollsters that blacks had as good a chance as white people to get a job for which they are qualified. Further, 80% of whites, compared to 49% of blacks, said that black children had as good a chance as white ones to get a good education.

Despite these realities, almost everyone agrees that progress has been made. The 2008 Gallup survey found that 72% of blacks and 82% of non-Hispanic whites believed civil rights for blacks have improved in the past 10 years. Seven in 10 whites and 61% of blacks described relations between whites and blacks as very or somewhat good, according to the survey.

And in the ABC/Post poll, 44% of blacks said racism was a big problem in our society today--but that figure is much lower than the 70% response rate a little more than a decade ago. Still, only 35% of blacks (and 63% of whites) reported being satisfied with the way blacks are treated in society today.

It's not just that general impressions have evolved; views of specific racially charged issues have changed, too. Eighty percent of respondents nationally, for example, approved of marriages between blacks and whites, according to a new Princeton Survey Research Associates/Newsweek poll. By contrast, in a 1958 Gallup poll, just 4% approved of marriage between "white and colored people." Nearly eight in 10 in the recent Newsweek survey said they know an interracial couple, a figure up from 58% in 1995.

As for Barack Obama's election? In the January CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll, 44% of blacks said the milestone marks a new era in race relations, and another 36% said it means some improvement in that area. Three-quarters of blacks in the ABC/Post poll said Obama's presidency would do more to help race relations, while 18% said he wouldn't make much difference. In the new Fox News/Opinion Dynamics survey, 38% of blacks but only 27% of whites said his election symbolizes the end of racial barriers in America.

Americans do believe that progress with respect to race will extend into the future; more than 60% of blacks and whites in Gallup's survey expect improvements over the next 10 years. When asked by Gallup whether relations between blacks and whites will always be a problem for the United States--a question that has been asked off and on since the early 1960s--37% of whites and 49% of blacks said they would always be a problem. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us given our history, but in polls on race relations, optimism is still tempered with a dose of pessimism.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.

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