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Getting Ahead

Blacks and Wealth

63% of Americans believe 'blacks who can't get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition'

THERE IS A POPULAR AMERICAN VIEW THAT THE CONSEQUENCES OF DISCRIMINATION ENDED WITH JIM CROW

The Pew Research Center's massive new report on American political and social beliefs reveals some fascinating nuances in American public opinion, which they've divided into seven ideological groups. But one surprising area where views seem to converge is on the question of African-American advancement.

THERE IS A POPULAR AMERICAN VIEW THAT THE CONSEQUENCES OF DISCRIMINATION ENDED WITH JIM CROW

A wide majority of Americans say that, if black people are struggling to advance in society, then it is primarily their fault and not because of discrimination. That's the majority view for some types of liberals but is far, far more common among conservatives. Over 80 percent of conservatives say they agree that "Blacks who can't get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition," while just some seven percent say that "Racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can't get ahead these days."

That's based on Pew pollsters asking Americans which of those two statements they agree with more. Nationally, 63 percent say "blacks who can't get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition" versus 27 percent who say "racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can't get ahead these days." That's more than two-to-one.

Here, at right, is how the poll breaks down along American political ideologies, which Pew has broken down into seven different groups:

Screen_shot_2014-06-26_at_6.01.46_pm You can see that only one of those seven ideological groups sees racial discrimination as the primary driver of widespread disadvantage for black Americans. That group, which Pew has named "solid liberals," are a small minority. They make up 15 percent of the general public and 17 percent of voters; Pew defines them as "generally affluent and highly educated...Most say they always vote Democratic and are unflagging supporters of Barack Obama."

The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his recent cover story "The Case for Reparations," wrote about the popular American fiction that the age of widespread discrimination against black people is over in American, as are its effects. Because, even though it is widely perceived as fact by American conservatives and even liberals, it is a fiction.

In fact, not only does discrimination continue today, but the consequences of two centuries of slavery and one century of explicit white supremacy still directly impact and hold back black families. Here is Coates writing about how this persists just within the narrow but important question of neighborhoods:

The lives of black Americans are better than they were half a century ago. The humiliation of Whites Only signs are gone. Rates of black poverty have decreased. Black teen-pregnancy rates are at record lows-and the gap between black and white teen-pregnancy rates has shrunk significantly. But such progress rests on a shaky foundation, and fault lines are everywhere. The income gap between black and white households is roughly the same today as it was in 1970. Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at New York University, studied children born from 1955 through 1970 and found that 4 percent of whites and 62 percent of blacks across America had been raised in poor neighborhoods. A generation later, the same study showed, virtually nothing had changed. And whereas whites born into affluent neighborhoods tended to remain in affluent neighborhoods, blacks tended to fall out of them.

This is not surprising. Black families, regardless of income, are significantly less wealthy than white families. The Pew Research Center estimates that white households are worth roughly 20 times as much as black households, and that whereas only 15 percent of whites have zero or negative wealth, more than a third of blacks do. Effectively, the black family in America is working without a safety net. When financial calamity strikes-a medical emergency, divorce, job loss-the fall is precipitous.

And just as black families of all incomes remain handicapped by a lack of wealth, so too do they remain handicapped by their restricted choice of neighborhood. Black people with upper-middle-class incomes do not generally live in upper-middle-class neighborhoods. Sharkey's research shows that black families making $100,000 typically live in the kinds of neighborhoods inhabited by white families making $30,000. "Blacks and whites inhabit such different neighborhoods," Sharkey writes, "that it is not possible to compare the economic outcomes of black and white children."

The American belief that discrimination and its effects ended with the dismantling of Jim Crow are an important part of this story, and a real component of why this discrimination is allowed to persist. But the widespread insistence on this point — with more than 60 percent of Americans and 80 percent of conservatives saying that black families have primarily themselves to blame for unequal advancement — makes the politics of addressing the issue all the more difficult.

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