KORVA COLEMAN, host:
I'm Korva Coleman. This is Tell Me More from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we wrap up our series, Tell Me More about Black History, with a reexamination of the ideas and legacy of civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr. First, a closer look at black voters in the South. Winthrop University and South Carolina public broadcaster ETV have just completed a political survey of African-Americans in 11 Southern states. The poll registered a whopping 90-percent approval rating for President Obama, and here to talk about this and other findings in the poll is Winthrop University Professor Adolphus Beck Jr. Professor Beck, thank you for joining us.
Dr. ADOLPHUS G. BELK JR. (Political Science, Winthrop University): That's fine. I'm glad to be here. Name is Belk, though. Sorry about that.
COLEMAN: I beg your pardon, sir. Professor Belk, the survey found that 96 percent of respondents believe the Obama administration's policies would treat blacks and whites equally. Now, did that figure and the high approval rating for Mr. Obama surprise you in any way?
Dr. BELK: We understood that going into this, African-Americans, by the time the election came around, were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about his candidacy and felt good about his chances for becoming the 44th president, but that finding is still very important, because there were some who were suggesting that African-Americans were supporting him, expecting a handout and a check and government job and everything else. But when you look at the data, we found that people were supporting him, but they thought that he would treat people of different races and ethnicities equally.
COLEMAN: Do you find that an encouraging thing to note?
Dr. BELK: I think it's very important to note because it shows that people are voting for him thinking that he is going to do the best job at helping the nation to deal with the awesome challenges of the moment, and that he is going to do so thinking about what's in all of our best interests, and not trying to satisfy one particular racial group over another or even one party over another.
COLEMAN: When talking about issues of race, Mr. Obama's choice for attorney general, Attorney General Eric Holder, described the United States as a, quote, "nation of cowards," when it came to confronting the issue of race. What did the poll say about the willingness of African-Americans in the South to discuss race?
Dr. BELK: Well, one of the things that happens is that people have a way of looking at racial progress that separates region from nation. And so, when thinking about racial progress for the nation as a whole, folk think that the nation as a whole is doing a better job of dealing with issues of race than the South in general. In terms of talking about race, we found that about 58 percent of the people in our survey said that it was easier to talk about race with the election, and part of that is because the election forced a dialogue about a race that had not really been present in that way for quite some time.
COLEMAN: Is there any way to know if that sentiment will be sustained over time?
Dr. BELK: Well, it depends on what happens. I think the attorney general's statement was quite forceful. I think there're some people who have been quite courageous talking about race, while others clearly have been cowards. And so, when we think about some of the conversations that have moved forward just over who's going to chair the RNC and some of these others things, you have some people, nationally, across parties, that are trying to do a good job of moving us forward on these issues, but then every time we take a step forward, it seems that we take a step back. So, it makes me think about some of the comments about the Obamas as being uppity; or describing President Obama, then candidate Obama, as a boy saying, we don't want that boy's hand on a button dealing with issues of national security; or people circulating an image of the president's face on a food stamp with chicken and watermelon; or people circulating CDs saying, you know, "Barack the Magic Negro;" that we still find ways to fall back into a rather nasty public discourse about race, while others are trying to move us in a more positive direction.
COLEMAN: Another question that the poll asked was whether people agreed with Mr. Obama's reported plan to end the Pentagon policy of don't-ask-don't-tell regarding gays and lesbians in the military. In a separate question, people were asked if gay and lesbian sex was acceptable or not, and you received two separate and interesting answers. Can you tell us about those?
Dr. BELK: Well, when we looked at the issue of sexuality - and I think this reveal as many, many, many, many years of people being in the church and having that moral fiber instilled in them at a very young age - we found that about 71 percent of the people in our sample saying that they found sex between adults of the same sex to be strongly unacceptable, with 61.5 percent saying - well, a combined 71 percent saying unacceptable, 61.5 percent saying that it was strongly unacceptable. So, there was some resistance there to relationships between the adults of the same sex. When we looked at military service, though, we found that about 30.2 percent of the people in the sample strongly agreed that we should repeal don't-ask-don't-tell, with another 14.8 percent saying that they agree. So, people were somewhat progressive on the question of gay serving openly in the military, but were much more conservative in looking at homosexuality overall.
COLEMAN: Well, taking that theme of conservativism a little bit further, you also found that a quarter of the people surveyed described themselves as somewhat or very conservative, but at the same time, the political party that describes itself as conservative, the Republican Party, did not receive much support. What might this mean?
Dr. BELK: Well, I think a lot of people looking at the national presidential election results think that African-Americans are overwhelmingly liberal, and that's the primary reason why they're supporting Democratic candidates. But the data reveals time and time again that there is a strong strain of conservatism that runs through the African-American community and that people are much more evenly divided ideologically than the exit poll numbers would suggest when you look solely at how they vote by party. So, we found 33.9 percent of the blacks in the South describing themselves as liberal, about 30.6 percent saying that they were moderates, and 28.4 percent describing themselves as conservatives, but only two percent of the African-Americans in our survey said that they voted Republican or identified themselves as Republicans. So, if anything, there's a window there for the Republican Party to make some inroads in the African-American community, but first and foremost, they have to carve out a different position in thinking about some of these issues of race if they're going to tap into the social conservatism that exists within the black community.
COLEMAN: Professor Belk, why is it important for the political opinions of African-Americans to be measured?
Dr. BELK: We don't know unless we ask. And often times, conventional wisdom is wrong or as some people are often to say, you know, common sense is ain't so common, that we think we know things about African-American voters or Latino voters and Latino voters, but we can only say so definitively if we take the time and put the money behind the efforts to more accurately measure and engage their opinions. And then we could speak from the position of knowledge and maybe make some better inferences about the sorts of things that should be done to address the concerns of these and other Americans.
COLEMAN: We've been joined by Professor Adolphus Belk Jr. of Winthrop University. Professor Belk joined us live from ETV Radio in Columbia, South Carolina. Professor, thank you for taking the time to chat with us.
Dr. BELK: Thank you.