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  1. Most African-Americans across all major religious traditions, including those who are unaffiliated, prefer a bigger government that provides more services to a smaller government providing fewer services. Significantly more African-Americans (70%) report that they prefer bigger government compared with the total population (46%), who are much more divided on the issue (43% prefer smaller government). And nearly eight-in-ten (79%) African-Americans say the government should do more to help the needy, even if it means going deeper into debt, while only 15% say the government cannot afford to do much more to help the needy. pewforum.org
  2. Regardless of their religious background, African-Americans overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party. The 2007 Landscape Survey finds that more than three-quarters of all African-Americans (76%) describe themselves as Democrats or say they lean toward the Democratic Party, while just 10% favor the Republicans. Across all religious groups, at least two-thirds of African-Americans express support for the Democratic Party. Among the total population, by comparison, less than half (47%) describe themselves as Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party, while 35% support the GOP. This unity of partisanship among African-Americans carries over into the voting booth, where they have voted overwhelmingly for Democratic presidential candidates in recent elections (95% for Barack Obama in 2008 and 88% for John Kerry in 2004). African-Americans also support the Democrats by wide margins regardless of their overall level of religious commitment; in the general population, by contrast, religious commitment is linked with differences in party affiliation. For example, in the general population, four-in-ten of those who attend worship services at least once a week favor the Democratic Party, but among those who attend less frequently, more than half (51%) favor the Democrats. No such gaps are seen within the African-American community, where huge majorities favor the Democratic Party regardless of their level of religious commitment. pewforum.org
  3. On a variety of measures, African-Americans express comfort with religion’s role in politics. According to a summer 2008 Pew Research Center survey, six-in-ten African-Americans (61%) say houses of worship should express their views on social and political matters, while only 36% say churches should avoid these topics. On this question, African-Americans closely resemble white evangelical Protestants, among whom 59% say churches should express their views and 38% say churches should keep out of social and political matters. By contrast, among the overall population, the balance of opinion leans in the opposite direction; 52% say that churches should keep out of politics, while only 45% say churches should express their views on social and political issues. Half of African-Americans feel there have been too few expressions of faith by political leaders, and an additional 24% say there has been the right amount of religious expression by political leaders; only 23% say there has been too much religious talk from politicians. On balance, the public overall is less concerned with a lack of religious speech from politicians; only 36% say there has been too little of such expressions, while 30% say there has been the right amount and 29% say there has been too much. Even though African-Americans generally are comfortable with the notion that politics should be influenced and informed by religion, they also support certain limitations on the mingling of politics and religious institutions. For instance, nearly six-in-ten (58%) say churches and other houses of worship should not come out in favor of political candidates. Among the population overall, two-thirds take this point of view. pewforum.org
  4. Overall, about four-in-ten African-Americans (41%) think that homosexuality should be accepted by society, while 46% say that homosexuality should be discouraged. By contrast, among the public overall, those who say that homosexuality should be accepted outnumber those who say it should be discouraged (50% to 40%). Among African-Americans, members of evangelical churches express the most conservative views on this issue (58% say homosexuality should be discouraged), while unaffiliated African-Americans are among the least conservative (only 32% say it should be discouraged), a difference of 26 percentage points. Again, however, religiously based differences are smaller among African-Americans; among the population overall, 64% of evangelicals say homosexuality should be discouraged by society, compared with 20% of the religiously unaffiliated, a difference of 44 percentage points. The same is true when it comes to religious observance, with the most religiously observant African-Americans most likely to say that homosexuality should be discouraged, a similar pattern as seen among the overall population. But, once again, the differences between the most and least religiously observant are more pronounced in the population overall than among African-Americans. According to Pew Research Center surveys conducted in the summer of 2008, nearly two-thirds of African-Americans (64%) say they oppose allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, a significantly higher level of opposition than among whites (51%). Among both African-Americans and whites, however, evangelical Protestants are much more opposed to gay marriage than are mainline Protestants. pewforum.org
  5. Social Issues Similar links exist among African-Americans as among the general population when it comes to religion and views on social issues such as abortion and homosexuality. But once again, the religiously based differences on these issues are less pronounced among African-Americans than in the overall population. Abortion Overall, 49% of African-Americans favor keeping abortion legal in most or all cases, while 44% want abortion to be illegal in most or all cases. These figures are similar to those seen among the public as a whole (51% vs. 42%). Among African-Americans, members of evangelical churches are most likely to say that abortion should be illegal (53%), while those who are unaffiliated with any religion are least likely to say that abortion should be illegal (34%), a difference of 19 percentage points. Among the population overall, the difference in opinion between members of evangelical churches (61% opposed to abortion) and the unaffiliated (24% opposed) is nearly twice as large, at 37 percentage points. Among both African-Americans and the general population, those who are most religiously observant are more likely to think that abortion should be illegal. For example, more than half (51%) of African-Americans who attend religious services at least once a week think that abortion should be illegal, compared with only 35% of those who attend worship services less often, a difference of 16 percentage points. Here again, these religiously based differences are smaller than among the general population; overall, fully 61% of weekly worship service attenders say they oppose abortion, compared with only 31% among those who attend services less often, a difference of 30 percentage points. pewforum.org
  6. Among African-Americans, as with the public generally, views on political ideology and social issues, such as abortion and homosexuality, are linked with both religious affiliation and religious observance (as measured by worship service attendance and importance of religion in one’s life). For instance, black members of evangelical Protestant churches and the more religiously observant express more conservative views than those who are unaffiliated with any particular religion or are less religiously observant. But these religiously based differences tend to be smaller in the African-American community than in the population as a whole. And on some political issues, there are few religious divides to speak of within the black community. Perhaps the most striking of these is partisanship, with the vast majority of African-Americans of all religious backgrounds expressing support for the Democratic Party. Ideology Like the overall population, African-Americans are more likely to describe their political ideology as conservative (32%) or moderate (36%) than as liberal (23%). Members of evangelical churches and the most religiously committed members of all religious groups are most likely to describe themselves as conservative, while those who are unaffiliated and less religiously committed are among the least likely to describe themselves as such. While this is true among both African-Americans and the general population, these differences are much smaller among African-Americans. For example, among African-Americans, members of evangelical churches and those who are most religiously observant are just as likely to describe their ideology as moderate as to say they are conservative; by contrast, among the general population, the same groups are much more likely to say they are conservative than moderate or liberal. pewforum.org
  7. African-Americans also express higher levels of religious belief than do Americans overall. Compared with the population overall, for instance, African-Americans are more likely to believe in God with absolute certainty (88% vs. 71% among the total adult population), interpret Scripture as the literal word of God (55% vs. 33%) and express a belief in angels and demons (83% vs. 68%). They also are more likely to say they are absolutely convinced about the existence of life after death (58% vs. 50%) and to believe in miracles (84% vs. 79%). These views are held by the overwhelming majority of members of historically black churches. But even African-Americans who are unaffiliated with any religion consistently express higher levels of religious beliefs compared with the unaffiliated public overall. Unaffiliated African-Americans, for instance, express certain belief in God (70%) at levels similar to those seen among the general population of mainline Protestants (73%) and Catholics (72%) and are about twice as likely as the overall unaffiliated population (36%) to express this belief. Furthermore, unaffiliated African-Americans are somewhat more likely than mainline Protestants or Catholics overall to hold a literal view of the Bible (33% among unaffiliated African-Americans vs. 22% among all mainline Protestants and 23% among all Catholics) and are three times as likely to hold this view compared with the overall unaffiliated population (11%). pewforum.org
  8. African-Americans attend religious services and pray more frequently than the general population. While 39% of all Americans report attending religious services at least once a week, a majority of African-Americans (53%) report the same. Similarly, while 58% of all Americans report praying at least once a day, a significantly higher number of African-Americans (76%) report praying daily. This pattern is seen across most major religious traditions. Perhaps most interestingly, unaffiliated African-Americans attend religious services and pray in much higher numbers than the unaffiliated population overall. For example, 15% of African-Americans who are unaffiliated report attending religious services at least once a week, compared with only 5% of the unaffiliated population as a whole. And fully 28% of unaffiliated African-Americans attend religious services at least once a month, compared with only 10% of the unaffiliated population overall. Similarly, nearly half of unaffiliated African-Americans say they pray daily (48%), more than twice the level seen among the unaffiliated population overall (22%). On this question, unaffiliated African-Americans more closely resemble the overall population of mainline Protestants (53% pray daily) and Catholics (58%) than they do the overall unaffiliated population. pewforum.org
  9. In many ways, African-Americans are significantly more religious than the general population, with the vast majority considering religion very important in their lives. African-Americans also are more religiously observant on a variety of other measures, from frequency of prayer and worship service attendance to belief in God. Importance of Religion Nearly eight-in-ten African-Americans (79%) say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 56% among the U.S. adult population overall. Consistent with this, members of historically black churches are among the most likely of any religious group to say religion is very important in their lives. Among African-American members of historically black churches, 85% say religion is very important to them. Across a wide variety of religious groups, black members are more likely than members of their faiths overall to say religion is very important to them. African-Americans who are members of evangelical Protestant churches, for instance, are 10 percentage points more likely than evangelicals overall to see religion as very important in their lives (89% vs. 79%). The difference is even greater among members of mainline Protestant churches. More than three-in-four African-American members of mainline churches say religion is very important in their lives (76%), compared with about half (52%) of all mainline Protestants. Religion also is important in the lives of many African-Americans who are not affiliated with any particular religion. Fully 45% of unaffiliated African-Americans report that religion is very important in their lives and an additional 26% describe religion as somewhat important, meaning that, overall, more than seven-in-ten African-Americans who are unaffiliated with a religion say religion is at least somewhat important in their lives. This compares with only about four-in-ten (41%) among the unaffiliated population overall. pewforum.org
  10. Gender As in the population overall, African-American men are significantly more likely than women to be unaffiliated with any religion (16% vs. 9%). African-American women are somewhat more likely than African-American men to describe themselves as Protestant (82% of women vs. 72% of men). Among African-American women, 62% are members of historically black Protestant churches, 16% are affiliated with evangelical churches and 4% are mainline Protestant; among men, 55% are members of historically black churches, 14% are evangelical and 4% are mainline Protestant. African-American women also stand out for their high level of religious commitment. More than eight-in-ten black women (84%) say religion is very important to them, and roughly six-in-ten (59%) say they attend religious services at least once a week. No group of men or women from any other racial or ethnic background exhibits comparably high levels of religious observance. Age African-Americans are more likely to be affiliated with a faith compared with the public overall, but as with the general population, younger African-Americans are more likely than their older counterparts to report being unaffiliated with a religion. For example, nearly one-in-five African-Americans under age 30 (19%) are unaffiliated, compared with just 7% of African-Americans who are age 65 and older. Education Among African-Americans with less than a high school education, nearly two-thirds (63%) are members of historically black churches, as are about the same number (60%) of African-Americans who are high school graduates. Among African-Americans who have completed college, however, fewer (53%) are members of historically black Protestant churches. Additionally, black college graduates are somewhat more likely to be part of mainline Protestant and Catholic churches as compared with those from other educational backgrounds. Geography While at least half of African-Americans in all regions of the country are members of historically black churches, a disproportionately large percentage of Southern blacks say they belong to historically black churches; nearly two-thirds of African-Americans who live in the South (64%) are members of this tradition. The West is the only region of the country where upwards of one-in-ten African-Americans (11%) describe themselves as Catholic. In the Midwest and the Northeast, the number of African-Americans who are unaffiliated with any particular religion is similar to the share of the general population in these regions that is religiously unaffiliated. By contrast, in the South and the West, African-Americans are less likely to be unaffiliated compared with the overall population. Fully 60% of all members of historically black churches reside in the South, with 19% residing in the Midwest, 13% living in the Northeast and 8% located in the West. This closely resembles the geographic distribution of the black community overall; 56% of African-Americans live in the South, 21% reside in the Midwest, 15% are located in the Northeast and 9% live in the Western United States. pewforum.org
  11. The vast majority of African-Americans are Protestant (78%), compared with only 51% of the U.S. adult population as a whole. By a wide margin, African-Americans stand out as the most Protestant racial and ethnic group in the U.S.; far fewer whites (53%), Asians (27%) and Latinos (23%) belong to Protestant denominations. But Protestantism in the U.S. – and in the black community – is not homogeneous. Rather, it is divided into three distinct traditions – evangelical Protestant churches, mainline Protestant churches and historically black Protestant churches. More than three-in-four African-American Protestants (and 59% of African-Americans overall) belong to historically black Protestant denominations, such as the National Baptist Convention or the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In fact, 40% of all African-Americans identify with Baptist denominations within the historically black tradition. By several measures, including importance of religion in life, attendance at religious services and frequency of prayer, the historically black Protestant group is among the most religiously observant traditions. In fact, on these and other measures of religious practices and beliefs, members of historically black Protestant churches tend to resemble members of evangelical Protestant churches, another highly religious group. Outside of the historically black tradition, an additional 15% of African-Americans are members of evangelical denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention or Assemblies of God, and 4% are members of mainline denominations, such as the Disciples of Christ. Overall, the membership of historically black Protestant denominations is 92% black, while African-Americans make up relatively small portions of the membership of evangelical (6%) and mainline (2%) churches. Slightly more than one-in-ten African-Americans (12%) report being unaffiliated with any particular religion. Although the unaffiliated make up a smaller proportion of the African-American community (12%) than of the adult population overall (16%), the unaffiliated still constitute the third largest “religious” tradition within the black community. However, very few African-Americans (1%) describe themselves as atheist or agnostic. Instead, most unaffiliated African-Americans (11% of African-Americans overall) simply describe their religion as “nothing in particular.” Indeed, among the African-American unaffiliated population, a significant majority (72%) says religion is at least somewhat important in their lives. pewforum.org
  12. While the U.S. is generally considered a highly religious nation, African-Americans are markedly more religious on a variety of measures than the U.S. population as a whole, including level of affiliation with a religion, attendance at religious services, frequency of prayer and religion’s importance in life. Compared with other racial and ethnic groups, African-Americans are among the most likely to report a formal religious affiliation, with fully 87% of African-Americans describing themselves as belonging to one religious group or another, according to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted in 2007 by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Latinos also report affiliating with a religion at a similarly high rate of 85%; among the public overall, 83% are affiliated with a religion. The Landscape Survey also finds that nearly eight-in-ten African-Americans (79%) say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 56% among all U.S. adults. In fact, even a large majority (72%) of African-Americans who are unaffiliated with any particular faith say religion plays at least a somewhat important role in their lives; nearly half (45%) of unaffiliated African-Americans say religion is very important in their lives, roughly three times the percentage who says this among the religiously unaffiliated population overall (16%). Indeed, on this measure, unaffiliated African-Americans more closely resemble the overall population of Catholics (56% say religion is very important) and mainline Protestants (52%). Additionally, several measures illustrate the distinctiveness of the black community when it comes to religious practices and beliefs. More than half of African-Americans (53%) report attending religious services at least once a week, more than three-in-four (76%) say they pray on at least a daily basis and nearly nine-in-ten (88%) indicate they are absolutely certain that God exists. On each of these measures, African-Americans stand out as the most religiously committed racial or ethnic group in the nation. Even those African-Americans who are unaffiliated with any religious group pray nearly as often as the overall population of mainline Protestants (48% of unaffiliated African-Americans pray daily vs. 53% of all mainline Protestants). And unaffiliated African-Americans are about as likely to believe in God with absolute certainty (70%) as are mainline Protestants (73%) and Catholics (72%) overall. The Landscape Survey also shows that the link between religion and some social and political attitudes in the African-American community is very similar to that seen among the population overall. For instance, just as in the general public, African-Americans who are more religiously observant (as defined by frequency of worship service attendance and the importance of religion in their lives) are more likely to oppose abortion and homosexuality and more likely to report higher levels of conservative ideology. It is important to emphasize, however, that differences on political and social issues across religious groups within the African-American community tend to be smaller than among the population overall. Compared with other groups, African-Americans express a high degree of comfort with religion’s role in politics. In fact, a summer 2008 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum shows that African-Americans tend to closely resemble white evangelical Protestants on that score, with roughly six-in-ten among both groups saying that churches should express their views on social and political topics, and roughly half saying that there has been too little expression of faith and prayer by political leaders. Fewer members of other religious groups express these views. At the same time, most African-Americans, like white evangelicals and other groups, support certain restrictions on the mingling of politics and religious institutions, with nearly six-in-ten (58%) saying that churches and other houses of worship should refrain from endorsing political candidates. On a variety of other questions, including political party identification and opinions about the proper role of government in providing services to the citizenry and assistance to the poor, there are few differences in the views of African-Americans across religious groups. Perhaps most strikingly, the partisan leanings of African-Americans from every religious background tilt heavily in the Democratic direction. pewforum.org
  13. America is once again a nation of immigrants, as a long series of recent newspaper stories and policy analyses remind us. Since 1990 the Los Angeles metropolitan region has gained almost a million residents, the New York region almost 400,000, and the Chicago region 360,000–almost all from immigration or births to recent immigrants. Most of the nation’s fastest-growing cities are in the West and Southwest, and their growth is attributable to immigration. More than half of the residents of New York City are immigrants or children of immigrants. How will these demographic changes affect racial politics? Projections show that the proportion of Americans who are neither white nor black will continue to increase, dramatically so in some regions. By 2030, whites will become a smaller proportion of the total population of the nation as a whole, and their absolute numbers will begin to decrease. The black population, now just over 13 percent, will grow, but slowly. The number of Latinos, however, will more than double, from 24 million in 1990 to almost 60 million in 2030 (absent a complete change in immigration laws). The proportion of Asians will also double. A few states will be especially transformed. By 2030 Florida’s population is projected to double; by then its white population, now about seven times as large as either the black or Latino population, will be only three or four times as large. And today, of 30 million Californians, 56 percent are white, 26 percent Latino, 10 percent Asian, and 7 percent black. By 2020, when California’s population could grow by as much as 20 million (10 million of them new immigrants), only 35 percent of its residents are projected to be white; 40 percent will be Latino, 17 percent Asian, and 8 percent black. These demographic changes may have less dramatic effects on U.S. racial politics than one might expect. For example, the proportion of voters who are white is much higher than the proportion of the population that is white in states such as California and Florida, and that disproportion is likely to continue for some decades. Second, some cities, states, and even whole regions will remain largely unaffected by demographic change. Thus racial and ethnic politics below the national level will be quite variable, and even in the national government racial and ethnic politics will be diluted and constrained compared with the politics in states particularly affected by immigration. Third, most Latino and Asian immigrants are eager to learn English, to become Americans, and to be less insulated in ethnic communities, so their basic political framework may not differ much from that of native-born Americans. Finally, there are no clear racial or ethnic differences on many political and policy issues; the fault lines lie elsewhere. For example, in the 1995 Washington Post survey mentioned earlier, whites, blacks, Latinos, and Asians showed similar levels of support for congressional action to limit tax breaks for business (under 40 percent), balance the budget (over 75 percent), reform Medicare (about 55 percent), and cut personal income taxes (about 50 percent). Somewhat more variation existed in support for reforming the welfare system (around 75 percent support) and limiting affirmative action (around a third). The only issue that seriously divided survey participants was increased limits on abortion: 24 percent support among Asian Americans, 50 percent support among Latinos, and 35 percent and 32 percent support among whites and blacks respectively. Other surveys show similar levels of inter-ethnic support for proposals to reduce crime, balance the federal budget, or improve public schooling. But when political disputes and policy choices are posed, as they frequently are, along lines that allow for competition among racial or ethnic groups, the picture looks quite different. African Americans are overwhelmingly likely (82 percent) to describe their own group as the one that “faces the most discrimination in America today.” Three in five Asian Americans agree that blacks face the most discrimination, as do half of whites. But Latinos split evenly (42 percent to 40 percent) over whether to award African Americans or themselves this dubious honor. The same pattern appears in more specific questions about discrimination. Blacks are consistently more likely to see bias against their own race than against others in treatment by police, portrayals in the media, the criminal justice system, promotion to management positions, and the ability to get mortgages and credit loans. Latinos are split between blacks and their own group on all these questions, whereas whites see roughly as much discrimination against all three of the nonwhite groups and Asians vary across the issues. Perhaps the most telling indicator of the coming complexity in racial and ethnic politics is a 1994 National Conference survey asking representatives of the four major ethnic groups which other groups share the most and the least in common with their own group. According to the survey, whites feel most in common with blacks, who feel little in common with whites. Blacks feel most in common with Latinos, who feel least in common with them. Latinos feel most in common with whites, who feel little in common with them. Asian Americans feel most in common with whites, who feel least in common with them. Each group is running after another that is fleeing from it. If these results hold up in political activity, then American racial and ethnic politics in the 21st century are going to be interesting, to say the least. Attitudes toward particular policy issues show even more clearly the instability of racial and ethnic coalitions. Latinos support strong forms of affirmative action more than do whites and Asians, but sometimes less than do blacks. In a 1995 survey, whites were much more likely to agree strongly than were blacks, Asians, and Latinos that Congress should “limit affirmative action.” But the converse belief–that Congress should not limit affirmative action–received considerable support only from African Americans. Across a variety of surveys, blacks are always the most likely to support affirmative action for blacks; blacks and Latinos concur frequently on weaker though still majority support for affirmative action for Latinos, and all groups concur in lack of strong support for affirmative action for Asians. Exit polls on California”s Proposition 209 banning affirmative action found that 60 percent of white voters, 43 percent of Asian voters, and just over one-quarter of black and Latino voters supported the ban. What might seem a potential coalition between blacks and Latinos is likely to break down, however–as might the antagonism between blacks and whites–if the issue shifts from affirmative action to immigration policy. The data are too sparse to be certain of any conclusion, especially for Asian Americans, but Latinos and probably Asians are more supportive of policies to encourage immigration and offer aid to immigrants than are African Americans and whites. A recent national poll by the Princeton Survey Research Associates suggests why African Americans and whites resemble each other and differ from Latinos in their preferences for immigration policy: without exception they perceive the effects of immigration–on such things as crime, employment, culture, politics, and the quality of schools–to be less favorable than do Latinos. brookings.edu
  14. It is virtually unprecedented for a newly successful group of Americans to grow more and more alienated from the mainstream polity as it attains more and more material success. One exception, David Mayhew notes, is South Carolina’s plantation owners in the 1840s and 1850s. That frustrated group led a secessionist movement; what might embittered and resource-rich African Americans do? At this point the analogy breaks down: the secessionists’ actions had no justification, whereas middle-class blacks have excellent reason to be intensely frustrated with the persistent, if subtle, racial barriers they constantly meet. If more and more successful African Americans become more and more convinced of what Orlando Patterson calls “the homeostatic…principle of the…system of racial domination”–racism is squelched in one place, only to arise with renewed force in another–racial interactions in the political arena will be fraught with tension and antagonism over the next few decades. In that case, ironically, it may be working-class blacks’ continued faith in the great national suggestion that lends stability to Americans’ racial encounters. If most poor and working-class African Americans continue to care more about education, jobs, safe communities, and decent homes than about racial discrimination and antagonism per se, they may provide a counterbalance in the social arena to the political and cultural rage of the black middle class. But if these patterns should be reversed–thus returning us to the patterns of the 1960s–quite different political implications and questions would follow. For example, it is possible that the United States is approaching a benign “tipping point,” when enough blacks occupy prominent positions that whites no longer resist their success and blacks feel that American society sometimes accommodates them instead of always the reverse. That point is closer than it ever has been in our history, simply because never before have there been enough successful blacks for whites to have to accommodate them. In that case, the wealth disparities between the races will decline as black executives accumulate capital. The need for affirmative action will decline as black students SAT scores come to resemble those of whites with similar incomes. The need for majority-minority electoral districts will decline as whites discover that a black representative could represent them. But what of the other half of a reversion to the pattern of 1960s beliefs, when poor blacks mistrusted whites and well-off blacks, and saw little reason to believe that conventional political institutions were on their side? If that view were to return in full force, among people now characterized by widespread ownership of fiirearms and isolation in communities with terrible schools and few job opportunities, there could indeed be a fire next time. One can envision, of course, two other patterns–both wealthy and poor African Americans lose all faith, or both wealthy and poor African Americans regain their faith that the American creed can be put into practice. The corresponding political implications are not hard to discern. My point is that the current circumstances of African Americans are unusual and probably not stable. Political engagement and policy choices over the next few decades will determine whether affluent African Americans come to feel that their nation will allow them to enjoy the full social and psychological benefits of their material success, as well as whether poor African Americans give up on a nation that has turned its back on them. Racial politics today are too complicated to allow any trend, whether toward or away from equality and comity, to predominate. Political leaders’ choices, and citizens’ responses, are up for grabs. brookings.edu
  15. The course of American racial and ethnic politics over the next few decades will depend not only on dynamics within the African-American community, but also on relations between African Americans and other racial or ethnic groups. Both are hard to predict. The key question within the black community involves the unfolding relationship between material success and attachment to the American polity. The imponderable in ethnic relations is how the increasing complexity of ethnic and racial coalitions and of ethnicity-related policy issues will affect African-American political behavior. What makes prediction so difficult is not that there are no clear patterns in both areas. There are. But the current patterns are highly politically charged and therefore highly volatile and contingent on a lot of people s choices. MATERIAL SUCCESS AND POLITICAL ATTACHMENT Today the United States has a thriving, if somewhat tenuous, black middle class. By conventional measures of income, education, or occupation at least a third of African Americans can be described as middle class, as compared with about half of whites. That is an astonishing–probably historically unprecedented–change from the early 1960s, when blacks enjoyed the “perverse equality” of almost uniform poverty in which even the best-off blacks could seldom pass on their status to their children. Conversely, the depth of poverty among the poorest blacks is matched only by the length of its duration. Thus, today there is greater disparity between the top fifth and the bottom fifth of African Americans, with regard to income, education, victimization by violence, occupational status, and participation in electoral politics, than between the top and bottom fifths of white Americans. An observer from Mars might suppose that the black middle class would be highly gratified by its recent and dramatic rise in status and that persistently poor blacks would be frustrated and embittered by their unchanging or even worsening fate. But today’s middle-class African Americans express a “rage,” to quote one popular writer, that has, paradoxically, grown along with their material holdings. In the 1950s and 1960s, African Americans who were well-off frequently saw less racial discrimination, both generally and in their own lives, than did those who were poor. Poor and poorly educated blacks were more likely than affluent or well-educated blacks to agree that “whites want to keep blacks down” rather than to help them or simply to leave them alone. But by the 1980s blacks with low status were perceiving less white hostility than were their higher-status counterparts. Recent evidence confirms affluent African Americans’ greater mistrust of white society. More college-educated blacks than black high school dropouts believe that it is true or might be true that “the government deliberately investigates black elected officials in order to discredit them,” that “the government deliberately makes sure that drugs are easily available in poor black neighborhoods in order to harm black people,” and that “the virus which causes AIDS was deliberately created in a laboratory in order to infect black people.” In a 1995 Washington Post survey, when asked whether “discrimination is the major reason for the economic and social ills blacks face,” 84 percent of middle-class blacks, as against 66 percent of working-class and poor blacks, agreed. Ironically, today most poor and working-class African Americans remain committed to what Gunnar Myrdal called “the great national suggestion” of the American Creed. That is a change; in the 1960s, more well-off than poor blacks agreed that “things are getting better…for Negroes in this country.” But, defying logic and history, since the 1980s poor African Americans have been much more optimistic about the eventual success of the next generation of their race than have wealthy African Americans. They are more likely to agree that motivation and hard work produce success, and they are often touchingly gratified by their own or their children s progress. Assume for the moment that these two patterns, of “succeeding more and enjoying it less” for affluent African Americans, and “remaining under the spell of the great national suggestion” for poor African Americans, persist and grow even stronger. That suggests several questions for political actors. brookings.edu
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