As Black Drama Flourishes, Divides On Racial Equality Persist While black stories debut on large and small screens, a Pew survey finds deep divisions on views of race in America. We examine how black America has changed through the lens of a hit TV remake.
NPR logo As Black Drama Flourishes, Divides On Racial Equality Persist

As Black Drama Flourishes, Divides On Racial Equality Persist

Malachi Kirby plays Kunta Kinte in the updated version of Roots. Steve Dietl/The History Channel hide caption

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Steve Dietl/The History Channel

Malachi Kirby plays Kunta Kinte in the updated version of Roots.

Steve Dietl/The History Channel

It's been a big year for black cinema. Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation (2016) was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival and just sold to Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5 million. The movie centers around Nat Turner's 1831 slave rebellion and deliberately shares a name with D.W. Griffith's 1915 The Birth of a Nation, a film which romanticized the rise of the Klu Klux Klan.

The Free State of Jones just opened in theaters as a New York Times Critics' Pick. It explores a group of poor Southerners who broke away from the Confederacy and the complex relationships that persisted between slaves and their owners.

And on TV, a remake of Roots on A&E's History channel hoped to provide a more accurate historical context and attract a younger demographic. The 1977 original was nominated for 37 Emmys and attracted a record-setting 100 million viewers for its finale.

Stubbornly Persistent Views On Race

All this comes as Americans continue to be deeply divided on racial issues. According to a new Pew Research Center survey, 38 percent of white Americans believe the United States has "made changes needed to give blacks equal rights with whites." An additional 40 percent are optimistic the United States "will eventually make the changes" needed.

And African-Americans? Over 40 percent say the United States will never be able to give blacks equal rights with whites.

These profound differences persist across the Pew survey's questions, painting a striking gap between black and white Americans' views of racial equality. In just one example, a large majority of black Americans (70 percent) say racial discrimination is a major reason blacks may have a harder time getting ahead than whites. By contrast, just 36 percent of white Americans agreed.

And even among whites, Pew found broad divisions. Fifty-nine percent of white Republicans say too much attention is paid to racial issues today while only 21 percent of white Democrats say the same.

African-Americans Then And Now

Let's use Roots, on ABC in 1977 and on cable this month, to look at some of the ways black America has changed over the past four decades.

African-Americans make up a smaller portion of the prison population today than in 1977 though it is still disproportionately large.

There are now fewer African-Americans living below the poverty line.

In 1977, the black dropout rate was higher than the national rate. In 2013, that difference almost vanished.

The unemployment rate among African-Americans continues to be far above the national average.

African-American representation in Congress has nearly tripled. When compared to the African-American share of U.S. population, however, blacks are still underrepresented.

Continued Activism

During Sunday's BET Awards, actor and filmmaker Jesse Williams accepted the network's humanitarian award for his involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement and his years of political activism. His acceptance speech received a standing ovation.

"There has been no war that we have not fought and died on the front lines of. There has been no job we haven't done. There's no tax they haven't levied against us. And we've paid all of them. But freedom is somehow always conditional here. 'You're free,' they keep telling us. 'But she would have been alive if she hadn't acted so — free.'

Now, freedom is always coming in the hereafter. But you know what, though? The hereafter is a hustle. We want it now."

Despite statistical advances, it doesn't take much to imagine those words being spoken by a black activist in 1977.