Redefining What It Means to Be Black in America

Values Chart i i
Lindsay Mangum, NPR
Values Chart
Lindsay Mangum, NPR
Identity Chart
Lindsay Mangum, NPR

One of the most damaging forces tearing at young black people in America today is the popular culture's pernicious image of what an "authentic" black person is supposed to look like and how that person is supposed to act.

For example, VH-1's highly rated Flavor of Love show features a black man in a clownish hat, a big clock hanging around his neck, spewing the N-word while demeaning black women. And hip-hop music videos celebrate the "Thug Life" and "gansta" attitude for any young black person seeking strong racial identity.

But a critic who points out that this so-called culture is defeatist and damaging — because it leads to high drop-out rates, record black-on-black murder statistics and a record number of out-of-wedlock births — is dismissed as a prude and a censor. Anyone questioning lyrics that glorify violence and make it cool to treat women as sex toys is told that the words reflect the reality of black life, and that they are "acting white."

Well, today there is new fuel for the debate.

A poll released by the Pew Research Center, in association with NPR, finds that 67 percent of black men and 74 percent of black women think rap music is a bad influence on black America. In fact, 59 percent of black men and 63 percent of black women think the whole hip-hop industry — from the jailhouse fashion of pants hanging low, to indifference to work and school — is equally detrimental to black America.

White and Hispanic Americans agree, too. The Pew poll finds 64 percent of whites and 59 percent of Hispanics agree on the damaging impact of hip hop.

This Pew poll is a uniquely reliable measure of black opinion. Unlike most polls, it has a large sample of black people, in addition to whites and Hispanics. Most polls include such a small number of blacks and Hispanics that it is hard to draw reliable conclusions about racial issues. This poll is different and its findings are stunning.

Damaging Media Images

For example, young black people are the most upset (when compared to older blacks in the poll) about the way black Americans are portrayed on television and in the movies. Blacks under the age of 50 are much more likely to say media images of black people are worse today than they were 10 years ago.

And the proportion of young black people in the 18-29 age group who condemn the current media images of black people is 31 percent — higher than the 25 percent of blacks between the ages of 30-49, and the 17 percent of blacks in the 50-64 age group with similar disdain for black images in the media.

Similarly, when asked if the portrayal of black people on television and in the movies is harmful, it is young black people who most likely scream "Yes!" More than half (54 percent) of 18- to 29-year-old African Americans say black people are presented in a negative way in movies and TV shows. Fifty percent of black people ages 34-49 agree.

It is interesting to note that among black people 65 and older — who may have lived through times of rank racial images, from Amos 'n Andy-type minstrel shows to blaxploitation movies — the percentage concerned about current negative portrayals of black people drops to 18 percent.

Note that in every age group, the level of outrage about troubling images in movies and on TV is far less than the alarm over the corrosive impact of rap and hip-hop.

These revealing cultural findings are just part of a series of revelations about the reality of black opinion today.

Falling Concern over Immigration

Take the explosive subject of immigration. Last year, an anti-immigration group in Los Angeles, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, pulled together a group of black academics and activists to announce that most black Americans oppose guest-worker programs, want to close the U.S. border with Mexico and favor rounding up illegal immigrants. This got wide attention and was cited as Congress struggled with immigration reform earlier this year.

But the Pew poll finds that only 28 percent of African Americans say illegal immigration represents a "very big/big problem" in their community. There is a split on the question of whether blacks would have more job opportunities if there were fewer immigrants. The poll found 46 percent of black Americans disagree with that statement, while 44 percent agree.

When a poll asked a similar question in 1986, nearly three-quarters of black respondents said blacks would have more job opportunities if there were fewer immigrants. That would indicate that despite the higher profile of immigration today, black concern over the issue has actually dropped dramatically.

The level of concern over illegal immigration in black America is about the same as it is in white America (30 percent) and lower than it is among Hispanics (44 percent).

The big concerns for black Americans are lack of good jobs (58 percent); unwed mothers (50 percent); crime (49 percent); and drop-out rates (46 percent).

A Single Race?

Another revelatory finding in the Pew poll is that 37 percent of African Americans now agree that it is no longer appropriate to think of black people as a single race. A little more than half of the black people polled — 53 percent — agreed that it is right to view blacks as a single race. And the people most likely to say blacks are no longer a single race are young black people, ages 18-29.

Forty-four percent of those young black people say there is no one black race anymore, as compared to 35 percent of the 30- to 49-year-old black population, and 34 percent of the black people over age 65.

The split in the black race comes down to a matter of values, according to the poll. In response to the question, "Have the values of middle-class and poor blacks become more similar or more different?" 61 percent of black Americans said "more different." White Americans agreed, with 54 percent saying there is a growing values gap between the black middle class and the black poor; 45 percent of Hispanics agreed, too.

At the same time, 72 percent of whites, 54 percent of blacks, and 60 percent of Hispanics agree that in the last 10 years, "values held by black people and the values held by white people (have) become more similar."

Making It in America

This leads to what may be the most important finding in the poll: 53 percent of black Americans now agree that "blacks who can't get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition."

White America (71 percent) and Hispanic America (59 percent) agree that racism, while still a factor in American life, is not the principal force keeping poor black people in poverty. The more oppressive force, they seem to be saying, is a lack of strong families and the prevalence of values that do not emphasize education, hard work and perseverance.

It is important to note that this is not some Pollyannaish view that ignores the reality of racism. Sixty-eight percent of blacks say they deal with racial discrimination today in at least two of the categories of experience cited in the poll: such as applying for jobs, buying a house, renting an apartment, applying for college, shopping or dining out.

But even with that hard-edged view of how often they have to deal with discrimination, a majority of black people say that regardless of the race of an individual, a black person can make it in America.

That is a very different tune from the one the rap lyrics want you to believe — the one that says black people are all victims unless they are society's thugs, pimps and criminals.

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