Blacks divide along class lines

Times Staff Writer

A majority of black Americans blame individual failings -- not racial prejudice -- for the lack of economic progress by lower-income African Americans, according to a survey released Tuesday -- a significant change in attitudes from the early 1990s.

At the same time, black college graduates say the values of middle-class African Americans are more closely aligned with those of middle-class whites than those of lower-income blacks, the poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found.

And 40% of those surveyed said African Americans could no longer be viewed as a single community.

The report said that in 1994, 60% of African Americans believed racial prejudice was the main thing keeping blacks from succeeding economically. Only 33% blamed the individual. Though views on the issue have shifted over time, this was the first year that a majority of blacks, 53%, said individuals were responsible for their own condition.


At the same time, the survey found that most blacks believed racial prejudice was still a widespread problem in America.

Pew President Andrew Kohut said that about 60% of African Americans surveyed said blacks often faced discrimination when they applied for jobs or looked for housing. Just 20% of whites agreed with the employment assessment of blacks and 27% with the housing.

One result of shifting views on individual responsibility may be changes in blacks’ attitudes toward immigrants. In 1986, 74% of blacks said they would have more economic opportunities if there were fewer immigrants; today, 48% feel that way.

Most blacks and whites who participated in the poll agreed that immigrants tended to work harder at low-wage jobs than workers of their own groups.

On the topic of diverging values, 44% of blacks polled in 1986 said they saw greater differences created by class than by race. Today, that figure has grown to 61%.

The feeling holds for blacks with less than a high school education: 57% of those surveyed said middle-class blacks are more like middle-class whites than they are like poor blacks.

“The values of the bottom and the top are different,” Kohut said.

Overall, the survey found that there has been a convergence of values held by blacks and whites. For instance, a majority of both groups say that rap and hip-hop music have had a negative influence on society. “Blacks and whites have become more culturally integrated and, therefore, less-affluent blacks feel more estranged,” Kohut said.


The survey also found that pessimism about economic prospects has grown significantly among blacks. Fewer than half of those polled, 44%, said they expected life to get better. Twenty years ago, 57% had said they thought life would improve.

“People are quite anxious,” Kohut said. “They do not see the kind of forward momentum that blacks saw in earlier times.”

One reason for the pessimism may be that the condition of the black middle class appears to be more fragile than that of whites. About 45% of black children who grow up in middle-class families will slip into a lower-income bracket in adulthood, according to a separate study on economic mobility sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“Nearly half of children born to middle-class African Americans fall down to the bottom quintile [20%] as adults,” said John Morton, director of the economic mobility study.


The project, which tracked more than 2,000 children from 1968 to the present, found that two-thirds of children of all races tended to earn higher incomes than their parents when measured in constant dollars, Morton said.

However, about 16% of white children and about 45% of black children were unable to match their parents’ success and slipped into a lower socioeconomic bracket in adulthood.

“The good news is that the lower the child begins on the economic ladder, regardless of race, the higher the likelihood that child will surpass their parents’ income as an adult,” Morton said. “The bad news is that middle-income African American families appear to have tremendous difficulty passing on their middle-income status to their children.”

Morton said one reason could be changing family structures.


“There is a higher prevalence of single-parent families at a time that it is increasingly important to have two salaries to maintain a standard of living,” Morton said.

The Pew poll, which interviewed more than 3,000 people in September and October, had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points. The margin was slightly higher when the attitudes of blacks, whites and Latinos were considered separately.




Attitude shifts

In 2007, fewer than half of blacks polled expected a brighter future, and a majority blame individual failings over racial prejudice for a lack of economic progress.

Will life for blacks be better in the future?


- 1986

Better: 57%

Same: 14%

Worse: 23%


- 2007

Better: 44%

Same: 31%

Worse: 21%


Who is responsible for blacks’ condition?

Blacks responsible for their own condition: 53%

Racial discrimination: 30%

Neither/both: 14%


Don’t know/refused: 3%


Source: Pew Research Center

Mark Hafer Los Angeles Times