MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, the editors of some of our favorite magazines talked about holiday traditions and their top picks for the most influential people of the year. Some of the names in that list may surprise you.
But first, a provocative new study about race in America. The Pew Research Center, in association with NPR, is just out with a news survey that finds that African-Americans have become more pessimistic about the state of black progress in America. And many see a growing values gap between the poor and the middle class.
The pollsters interviewed blacks, whites and Latinos, and there were also interesting findings about the way these groups perceived each other. We're going to have several conversations about this study over the next couple of days.
We begin today with Melissa Harris-Lacewell. She's a professor of Politics and African-American Studies at Princeton. We're also joined by a journalist and blogger Marisa Trevino. She blogs at LatinaLista.net.
Ladies, thanks so much for joining us.
Professor MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL (Politics and African-American Studies, Princeton University): Thanks for having me.
Ms. MARISA TREVINO (Journalist; Blogger, LatinaLista.net): Hi, Michel.
MARTIN: Now, I hate to start you off on a down note, but one of the headlines says that looking forward and looking backward, African-Americans are relatively pessimistic about the state of black America.
The survey says that just one in five blacks say things are better for blacks than they were five years ago. That is the lowest percentage recorded in 25 years of survey-taking.
Professor Lacewell, can I start with you? What do you think that African-Americans are reacting to in answering this question?
Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, I think they're reacting to what many Americans would be reacting to right now, which is to say that we are in a time of economic, domestic crisis. We know that African-Americans are like miner's, canaries. They experience these economic crises and downturns first, and they also experience them longest.
So we have the continuing quagmire in Iraq that doesn't look like it's going to get cleaned up. And then on top of that, we have the continuing aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which intervened in sort of a sense that African-Americans might be gaining, you know, sort of a foothold of citizenship. And instead, you know, it gave us this media images for days and days and now, for years, that suggests that when African-Americans suffer, their government might abandon them.
MARTIN: It's also noteworthy that a few, even half of African-Americans think life will get better in the next five years. Melissa, why do you think that is?
Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yeah, I mean, it's interesting in the context of an African-American man running for the U.S. presidency with a real shot at winning the Democratic nomination and running on a platform of hope and optimism. It really is stunning to see this African-American population responding to that campaign in part by saying actually, we're not so hopeful, we're not so optimistic, we're not sure that things can get better.
So I think it does demonstrate a bit of disconnect between sort of the life experiences of black people on the ground and the desires of the political elite to suggest that everything might be okay.
MARTIN: Marisa Trevino, the - it's noteworthy that whites and Latinos think life for blacks has gotten much better over the last five years than black people do. What do you think those groups are reacting to when they respond to that question?
Ms. TREVINO: I think they're just looking at it from a third-party perspective. I know with Latinos, we tend to think that, you know, if life is going okay for us then it must be going okay for African-Americans as well, since we share a lot in the same struggles and challenges. And so I think as a culture and as a group, we are a lot more hopeful in terms of what the future holds.
MARTIN: That's interesting. Blacks also feel that discrimination is much more pervasive against them than whites and Latinos do. The survey talked about four areas - applying for a job or to college, shopping or eating out, buying or renting housing. Two-thirds of African-Americans think blacks commonly face discrimination in at least two of these areas, compared to only 20 percent of whites and a third of Hispanics. So I'd like to ask each of you what do you make of that perception gap?
Ms. TREVINO: Well…
MARTIN: Professor Lacewell? Mm-hmm.
Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yeah, sure. Part of it is that the perception gap around, you know, whether or not my life experiences and the life experiences of my friends, family and community are constrained by these discriminatory experiences. This is the real rub in racial conversation. It is very difficult to talk about how we will move forward as a country, how we will develop a sense of shared understandings of the political and economic and social world when we don't even agree about the processes that are occurring on the ground.
MARTIN: Interesting. Marisa Trevino, what do you think?
Ms. TREVINO: I think what might be really interesting to know which Latinos were polled in this because if you get recent immigrants, they tend to see everybody else is doing a little bit better than they are. And if you have Latinos who are second, third generation then I don't think the numbers would be in the middle as much.
MARTIN: Let's talk about values. This is one of the other findings that, I think, got a lot of attention that blacks and whites both seemed to agree that the values of middle-class and poor blacks are diverging, even though they think that the values of blacks and whites are converging. Melissa Harris-Lacewell, what does this mean to you?
Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: I have to say, for me, this was the most shocking element of reading the report with this assessment, particularly by the black middle class that African-Americans who are middle class have divergent values from the black poor. But, as I flipped through the survey, I also saw that the two most highly rated black public figures were Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby.
And although I haven't done any analysis yet of the data, my bet is that those things are related that to the extent that there are these powerful African-American public figures like Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby, who are making a claim that the reasons that the poor are experiencing higher rates of incarceration, difficulty in keeping their mortgages together, difficulty in finding marriage partners.
That to the extent that these public figures are saying that that is a values problem, instead of a problem of structural racism, which makes it harder to get a home, easier to get incarcerated and a heck of a lot more difficult to find a marriage partner. That this is been sort of accepted by the black middle class as a way of explaining why some African-Americans are doing well and some are doing poorly. And it is very distressing to me that we have a values-based assessment of this inequality rather than a structural assessment of it.
MARTIN: Marisa Trevino, what do you think? Do you think that the Latinos — again this question was not asked in the survey about how Latinos perceived their own community — but I wonder whether a similar chasm might be opening up in the Latino community?
Ms. TREVINO: At this stage, I don't see it as much simply because we're so grounded in the same values when it comes to family and religion and the closeness in how we relate with one another.
So I don't see that too much as a problem because, I mean, we have high dropout rates, we have high teenage pregnancies. And somehow or the other that still hasn't affected how we see each other in terms whether we're middle class, upper class or lower socioeconomic levels.
But I would say in about five to ten years, we definitely will see these different perceptions, and I think they'll be voiced as class barriers, if you will.
MARTIN: Mm-hmm. If you're just joining us, we're talking about a new study about racial attitudes in the U.S. and I'm joined by Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a professor of Politics and African-American Studies at Princeton, and blogger and freelance journalist Marisa Trevino.
The study also found that attitudes about illegal immigration have shifted among blacks and they are less likely to be concerned about illegal immigration than they were 20 years ago.
Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yeah. Well, it actually makes sense to me in that one of the, again, durable effects in black public opinion is that African-Americans tend to rally around communities and as individuals, who they perceive as being under attack by either the American state or the Republican Party, the conservatives, the right, you know, sort of name your enemy of the black public agenda, right? So, to the extent that African-Americans see Latinos and, particularly, immigration and a particular attempt to frame the entire Latino community as being, you know, sort of trespassers on American soil.
That actually is going to prompt for African-Americans a sense of solidarity because black people also remember and understand and recall an experience, this sense of being labeled outsiders, labeled as undeserving, labeled as - you know, while they're working to build the wealth of the nation - being labeled as people who are taking from the wealth of the nation.
MARTIN: This is interesting. It may lead to - my next question that each group's perception of how well each group gets along with the other group varies widely, and they don't match up.
Whites and Hispanics think blacks and whites get along very well or pretty well, but African-Americans less likely to agree. Blacks think blacks and Hispanics get a long very well or pretty well, but Latinos are less likely to agree with that assessment. And white people don't think blacks and Hispanics get along particularly well at all.
So, I don't know if either of you notice this funny, but Marisa, I wanted to ask you. What do you make of that?
Ms. TREVINO: I think it's just total disconnect. You know, you're looking at these from a far, and you'll think, oh, yeah, they must get a long, but, you know, maybe we don't get along as well, but, everybody else will get along better. And I just think, you know, it shows how little we know each other and how little we know how we interact with one another.
MARTIN: But whites didn't think that blacks and Latinos got along particularly well. Only 39 percent of whites surveyed thought that blacks and Hispanics get along either very well or pretty well. I was curious. What do you think might be fueling that idea?
Ms. LACEWELL: Oh, I think the media. I think the media has been fuelling a lot of these stereotypical impressions that we have of one another. And for me, a lot of the survey kind of reinforced the stereotypes of what we think each other should act or feel towards one another.
MARTIN: Very briefly, did you - did either of you - is there something else that stood out for you in the survey that we didn't get to that you wanted to flag?
Ms. TREVINO: I just thought it was interesting how African-Americans see themselves no longer out of - I forgot what the percentage is - as a single race. I think that's so true in the Latino community where we see an increase in intermarriage. And I think it'll be really interesting to see in 10 years what - if we can even label ourselves strictly as Hispanic or Latino.
MARTIN: That's fascinating. Melissa Harris Lacewell, anything else stood out for you?
Ms. LACEWELL: Yeah, absolutely. The anxiety about the police and about the system of incarceration. The fact that African-Americans still have very little faith in the criminal justice system again continues to suggest me these ways that African-Americans feel dispossessed as Americans.
MARTIN: To be continued. Melissa Harris Lacewell is a professor of African-American studies and politics at Princeton University. She joined us from the campus of Princeton. And blogger and freelance journalist, Marisa Trevino, blogs at Latinalista. She joined us from Dallas.
Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Ms. LACEWELL: Thanks so much, Michel.
Ms. TREVINO: Thank you.
MARTIN: To hear more of this conversation and to find out more about the poll, you can go to our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.