Poll: Education, Income Segregates Blacks

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A new poll by the Pew Research Center shows that many African-Americans say they can no longer be seen as a single race. Work ethic and education are creating a class divide. Nearly 40 percent of low-income blacks say they have nothing in common with middle-income and poor blacks.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

For generations one of the main dividing lines in America was between black and white. Now a new poll by the Pew Research Center shows that many African-Americans, nearly four and 10, say that blacks can no longer be seen as a single race. There are growing divisions inside the black community.

NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams is here to talk about them. And Juan, how would people say that African-Americans are not one race?

JUAN WILLIAMS: It's really stunning, Steve. It's 37 percent of African-Americans say that blacks can no longer be thought of as a single race. Now, young lower-income black people are more likely to say this than upper income black people. But what you get is nearly 40 percent of lower income blacks saying that they have little or no values in common between the poor and middle class black communities in the United States. And the perception of a class divide here has grown since the question was last asked in a poll in 1986.

INSKEEP: So when large numbers of black Americans say they don't think there's just one race there anymore, they're not really talking about skin color; they're talking about values and economics?

WILLIAMS: Exactly. What we're talking about is things like work ethic and education. Let me introduce you to a couple of people who spoke to this, people who participated in the poll, which was done by the Pew Research Center in association with NPR.

The first person I want to introduce you to is a woman by the name of Myrtle Wilson(ph). She is 86 years old, lives in Houston, Texas. I asked her if there were two African-American worlds.

Ms. MARTHA WILSON: Oh, lord. There are more than two, because we have some who are professional, some who are religious, some have given up, look like all hopes of making a good life for themselves and they've kind of got on the street side, where they don't work and don't want to work.

WILLIAMS: Right now, Steve, it's like 53 percent of black Americans who say that African-Americans who aren't getting ahead are responsible for their own problems, and then two-thirds of all Americans - whites, blacks, Hispanics - now feel that personal behavior - and by that we come back to the values concern - that wrong values with regard to education, keeping family together - that those are the things that are keeping poor black people oppressed. It's not racism.

By the way, Myrtle went on to say that she had worked since she was 12 and it's hard for her to understand that there are now black people who are having a hard time investing any value, any importance to the idea of finding meaningful work.

INSKEEP: Juan, this is really interesting because of course Bill Cosby got a lot of publicity in recent years making statements that poor people in many cases - or kids in particular - should be more responsible and pull themselves up. He was criticized for blaming the victims in a sense. You wrote about that. Many other people wrote about that. It sounds like Cosby's side seems to be winning the argument based on these numbers.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. In fact, in the poll, there is a rating of major black Americans and Cosby comes out near the top. And down at the bottom are people like 50 Cent, the rapper; you know, only 17 percent of black Americans approve of him and what he does. And it's striking because obviously young people who are more likely to listen to rap and participate in the hip-hop culture, they're the most critical of people like 50 Cent and highly laudatory of the Bill Cosbys, Oprah Winfreys of the world.

INSKEEP: Now, when you spoke to some of the people who actually participated in this survey, how did their own life experiences and what they're doing now influenced some of the things that they thought and said?

WILLIAMS: Well, again, what you come back to is values. For example, I spoke with Walter Booker(ph). He's a financial analyst from Montclair, New Jersey. And here's what he had to say about the values gap, Steve, the values gap that's splitting black America. He's doing very well for himself and he does volunteer work with nonprofit, helping inner city kids.

Mr. WALTER BOOKER (Financial Analyst): Their view of the role of education in their lives is very different than their suburban counterparts. They aren't looking at, well, yeah, high school is the prelude to college and then college as the prelude to a great career. They're looking at, you know, what - it doesn't really matter how well I do in high school because that's the end of it for me and then I'll have whatever life I'm going to have.

WILLIAMS: And, Steve, here's another example. Here's a cop who sees the divide come to life as he deals with people in different parts of a town in New Jersey, Garrett Reed(ph).

Mr. GARRETT REED (Police Officer): When I'm dealing with people of a higher income, higher educational level, they tend to think more along the lines of mainstream America in terms of opportunities, crime, education. And when I'm dealing with people of a lower income level, they see things in a smaller, you know, world view, you know, in terms of getting out of here and having the opportunity to travel and meet other people. You get a different view of the world.

INSKEEP: You know, Juan Williams, as I listen to that tape, you hear those two African-Americans speaking in terms not of we or us, in terms of they or them, those people that they're trying to figure out, trying to understand and analyze.

WILLIAMS: You're exactly right, Steve. Of course, you know, 50 years ago the fact of blackness was enforced by law and you had to live in certain neighborhoods, you were unable to go to certain schools, get certain jobs because of race. And race remains a large concern. According to the survey, large numbers of people saying that because of the color of their skin, they still have difficulties when it comes to issues like jobs, housing, dining out, shopping, but what you get also is this kind of weird perception, like wait a minute, other people may have dark skin, but you know what, we have grown apart.

I want you to listen for just a second to a woman, a cook, a woman who has a low level income, works in Baltimore, by the name Lenore Phillip(ph). And here is what she had to say about this divide.

Ms. LENORE PHILLIP (Cook): We as a people, we always saw ourselves fighting against white America. That was what segregation truly was when we studied it in school, but no one ever took a look and saw that it was a matter of segregation between rich blacks and middle-class blacks - middle-class blacks versus poor blacks. There's very few - and I want to make sure that that comes across; they are very few upper-class blacks that reach out to the lower class.

WILLIAMS: So what you see here, Steve, is this perception of a divide inside the black community.

INSKEEP: You know, Juan, not too long ago we spoke with the author Richard Russo, who argued that the big divide in America that gets overlooked is not race but class.

WILLIAMS: I think Richard Russo is on to something. We have a difficult time as Americans talking about class. And I think that among black people in this country now it's reached the point where people are acknowledging it, and they're slow to acknowledged it as a reality if they are well-educated, if they have liberal politics, because they don't want to have it said that they've become bourgeois and are forgetting those who are at the lower end. What a contrast it is in terms of American history. Black people were always clearly identified as black if they simply had one drop of black blood.

INSKEEP: As middle-class and upper-class African-Americans seem to grow apart in their values and beliefs from lower-class blacks, do those middle and upper-class blacks seemed to get closer to whites in their values?

WILLIAMS: You know, there's one voice I think that would illustrate this for you, Steve. This man - his name is Larry Oliver. He lives in Lancaster, California. Listen to how he talks about the kind of similarities now, especially among young people, regardless of their race.

Mr. LARRY OLIVER: I believe that this is the new generation. And I believe that a lot of that is based on kids just not knowing a lot of the prejudice that's taking place out there. It's not a big deal to them. They're going along as if this is just the way it's supposed to be. It's all right for me to ride my bike with this little white kid or the little Mexican kid and start learning a little Spanish. And that's the good thing, I think, that's now taking place.

WILLIAMS: What you see is that it's like 70 percent-plus of white Americans say that black and white values are now becoming more similar. And Hispanics agree as well. Even as there's a divide within the black community, there's this overall sense from blacks, whites, Hispanics that there is a convergence of values across racial lines taking place in America at this point.

INSKEEP: NPR's Juan Williams, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: And you can get more analysis of this story as well as full results of the poll by going to npr.org.

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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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