Poll: Blacks Optimistic About Their Future

A new poll by the Pew Research Center finds that despite high unemployment and other economic woes afflicting the African-American community, blacks are more optimistic about their prospects than they were just two years ago. The poll also found that more blacks and whites than before believe they share common values.

DEBORAH AMOS, Host:

The unemployment rate for African-Americans is 16 percent, far exceeding the nation's overall rate. Half of the country's mortgages in default are held by blacks. Still, African-Americans are feeling a lot better about their prospects. That's the finding of a new poll by the Pew Research Center. NPR News analyst Juan Williams advised the researchers in developing and interpreting the poll, and he joins me now. Good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Deborah.

AMOS: The headline of this poll is that African-Americans are much more optimistic about their life in America.

WILLIAMS: Well, it's pretty surprising. Twice as many blacks - 39 percent - now say the situation for black people in America is better than it's been over the course of the last five years. That is twice what it was in terms of black optimism in a poll done just two years previously.

AMOS: How much is this optimism due to the fact that Barack Obama was elected president?

WILLIAMS: Well, you'd have to say that's the major intervening event over the course of the past two years. But there's something else, I think, at work here, Deborah. We're now seeing black people over the course of the last three decades, when you've seen increases in education rates, graduation rates, housing rates and the like, I think black people for most of that period were reluctant to say in front of white people, you know what, things are getting better, for fear that whites would say, oh well, then we've done enough.

Now I think that progress has been sufficient that you have a larger cohort of blacks who say, you know what, we still face discrimination but things have gotten significantly better and I'm comfortable saying this to a pollster, that I think things are better and going to get better for my children.

And, you know, it's interesting also - in this Pew poll, 53 percent of African- Americans said blacks who are not getting ahead are responsible for their own situation. Only a third of African-Americans now say race is the primary impediment for an African-American who's not succeeding in the U.S. Again, astounding.

Fifteen years earlier, Deborah, it would've been exactly the opposite, that people would have said race is the primary reason that black people who aren't succeeding are not getting ahead in American society.

AMOS: Now, whites were also polled, so what stood out for you most about white attitudes?

WILLIAMS: Well, let's look at values for a second. Seventy percent of whites, along with 60 percent of blacks, say that blacks and whites have had increasingly similar values over the last 10 years. More and more you see blacks and whites saying we're thinking in similar terms as Americans. And I might add that if you were to ask black Americans about values, it's now the case that 52 percent of blacks say that the values of the black middle class and the black poor are becoming more divergent.

AMOS: Let's talk about Hispanics, because they also figured in this poll. What were the findings there?

WILLIAMS: If you ask Hispanics right now about Barack Obama, for example, it's 42 percent of Hispanics who say he's not paying enough attention to them, which is an intriguing finding because he's appointed Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court during this period. But in fact almost half of Hispanics want Barack Obama to do more in terms of their issues.

So it might mean that there's pressure on him and the Democratic Party to do more about immigration reform.

AMOS: Race is still a sensitive topic, Juan, and we just saw this again with the comments recently attributed to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid about President Obama. Now, he said them in 2008. So remind us of what he said and tell us what the importance of it is.

WILLIAMS: Well, he said that candidate Obama had a good chance to win and justified it by saying this: Yes, he would be the first African-American president but he's a light-skinned black and he does not speak with a Negro dialect. It has sparked some criticism from Republican circles, who are calling on the Democratic Senate majority leader to resign, so they're using this to beat him up.

WILLIAMS: I have not heard one black person say anything critical about Harry Reid on this subject. They say, well, he was inelegant. But discussions of skin color and skin tone are common in the black community. I mean, this is an issue going back to days of slavery. And talking about dialects, I think every parent says to their child in the black community, if you're going to - you're going to have to speak the King's English if you hope to succeed in this society.

So the idea that he is guilty of some racial affront is a bit of a stretch.

AMOS: How much of this poll surprised you?

WILLIAMS: I think I was surprised to see that when it comes to intermarriage, young people - black and white - pretty much no problem. But once you get into a group in the mid-50s among whites, you see a precipitous drop in acceptance of interracial marriage. And here's the really funny thing, Deborah - that if you ask people about who they most object to marrying into their family, it's not a black, white, Hispanic, it's atheists. They say they don't want any atheists to marry into their family.

AMOS: Black, white or indifferent.

WILLIAMS: That's right.

AMOS: NPR News analyst Juan Williams, thank you very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Deborah.

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