On Monday, Pew released the results of a survey showing that, eight years after Barack Obama was elected president, 61% of black people and 45% of white people say that race relations in America are “generally bad.” That’s compared with 59% and 34%, respectively, who had negative impressions of race relations in July 2008.
If you’re wondering why things have gotten so tense, Pew has also released a report that offers a possible explanation: namely, black people and white people see black people’s struggles completely differently.
The survey shows that black people overwhelmingly blame lower-quality schools and discrimination for why “some blacks have a harder time getting ahead than whites.”
A majority of white people, meanwhile, said that “family instability” and “lack of good role models” were chiefly responsible for the problems facing black communities. Only 36% blamed discrimination, and just 45% said that a “lack of jobs” was holding black people back.
In other words, while most black people think that higher levels of poverty and lower levels of economic mobility in their communities are the fault of America’s legacy of systematic racism and under-investment, more white people are content to blame black people themselves.
Here’s the key chart:
Philip N. Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, has debunked the outdated idea of a “culture of poverty” in black communities—the notion that, if only blacks had more stable families, say, in the form of higher rates of marriage and two-parent households, they’d be better off economically:
“Because African Americans are worse off than whites, and they also have more family instability, it is not surprising that so many people confuse cause and effect,” Cohen told me in an email. “People are always inclined to blame people’s lower status on their visible behaviors. However, research shows that instability in Black families is much more a consequence of poverty and hardship than it is its cause.” Unemployment, discrimination, segregation, incarceration, and health disparities all take a toll on Black family life in America, as they always have, Cohen added.
The gap in the belief that race is holding black people is even more stark for Republicans, who say there’s actually too much discussion about race in America:
About a third of white people blame Barack Obama for making race relations worse.
The Pew report found that both white and black people agree that racism exists — but white people were much less likely to see institutional racism as a problem.
But Pew also found individual racism to be a significant issue. Nearly half of black people polled by Pew say they’ve been treated as if they were suspicious or less intelligent than white people by someone, while 18% reported having been profiled by police. Just 21% said they had been passed over for a job or promotion because of their race.
The answer to reducing racial tension isn’t obvious. Among the people polled by Pew, there was some agreement on “working directly with community members,” and even putting on a greater emphasis on diversity. But no possible solution posed by Pew got more than 50% support.