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Majority of Black Americans say race shapes their identity

Flags representing Caribbean nations drape the front of a residential building
The annual West Indian Day Parade, celebrating Caribbean heritage, on Sept. 1, 2014, in Brooklyn. A new report by the Pew Research Center says a majority of Black Americans believe being Black is central to how they think about themselves and shape their identities.
(Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)
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Three-quarters of Black Americans say being Black is central to how they think about themselves and shape their identities, even as they have diverse experiences and come from varying backgrounds, according to a new report by Pew Research Center.

Overall, 14% say being Black is somewhat important to their identity, and 9% say it has little to no impact.

The survey included Black Americans (U.S.-born and immigrants) of varying ethnicities, political party affiliations and ages.

Pew Research Center released its report on Black identity Thursday. The results pinpoint the critical role race plays in shaping identity in the U.S.

“What our data suggests to me is that being Black is important to all Black people, according to our findings, regardless of the intersections of their identity,” said Kiana Cox, research associate and co-author of the report.

Shelly Eversley, a professor at the City University of New York, said the 76% of survey respondents who consider their Blackness as central to their identity was less than she expected, because “race informs every asset of Black life.”

“Understanding the way race informs daily life is protection for a lot of Black people,” said Eversley, interim chair for the Department of Black and Latinx Studies. She was not a participant in the report.

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She said being Black is something you are aware of at a young age. Black children often face stricter discipline at school and other places, and their parents tend to have conversations with them when they are young about the dangers of racism.

The report points to how the importance people place on being Black fosters a sense of connectedness among communities, Cox said.

Those who say being Black is an important part of their personal identity were more likely to express a sense of connection with Black people in their local communities, in the U.S. and around the world than those who said it is less important.

There are 47 million Black people in the U.S., about 14% of the population, according to the 2020 census. Most Black adults in the U.S. where born in the country, but an increasing portion of the population, about 12%, are immigrants. Of the Black immigrant population, 90% were born in the Caribbean or Africa.

Black Americans cited violence, crime, poverty and homelessness as the most important issues to address in their communities, according to the report.

Overall, 17% of Black Americans said the most important issue is violence or crime — a category that includes drug activity, theft and vandalism, among other offenses — while 11% cited economic issues as the most important, 7% cited housing and 6% cited COVID-19 and public health. Nearly half of Black adults said local leaders are most responsible for addressing these issues.

A separate poll conducted in March by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research revealed that an overwhelming majority of adults say more progress is needed in achieving equal treatment for Black people in dealings with police and the criminal justice system. That poll came two years after protests against the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked a racial reckoning across the country.

When asking about community issues, the new survey used an open-ended question, so “the answer of what Black Americans think is important is a little more multilayered than just violence or crime,” Cox said, noting that there is much more that goes into that category than police violence.

The report showed that about half of those who say being Black is crucial to personal identity feel very or extremely informed about the history of Black people in the U.S. Of that group, about half say they learned that history from family and friends. A large majority, regardless of how being Black shapes their personal identities, say they have spoken to their families about their own history.

“The clarity in which family as a source of history for both U.S. Black history, like the kind of history we expect to learn in school, and ancestral history, what we learn about our family histories, was very interesting. It came through so strongly,” Cox said. “It confirms what scholars and historians have told us about the strength of family for Black Americans, especially in terms of greater knowledge.”

The survey of 6,513 U.S. adults, including 3,912 Black Americans, was conducted Oct. 4-17, 2021. It used a sample drawn from Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel and Ipsos KnowledgePanel, which are designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for Black respondents is plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.

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