After Obama’s First Year, Examining Black Americans’ Views on Progress

BY Judy Woodruff  January 12, 2010 at 5:26 PM EST

As we near the end of President Obama’s first year in office, and with talk of race much in the air this week in Washington, a new poll from the Pew Research Center caught my eye.

Pew released what they call “a comprehensive survey of racial attitudes” that reveals, among other things, that blacks’ assessments about “the state of black progress in America have improved more dramatically than at any time in the last quarter century.”

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From the poll summary: Nearly twice as many blacks now (39 percent) than in 2007 (20 percent) say that “the situation of black people in this country is better than it had been five years earlier.”

I found this curious, because unemployment among blacks (almost 16 percent) is much higher that it is among whites (under 10 percent), and the recession is an overwhelming factor in American life right now. So I checked in with someone who regularly follows attitudes among African-Americans, David Bositis, senior research associate at the highly respected Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

Bositis acknowledged times are especially tough for blacks, but he thinks they are not as downbeat as one might expect for three reasons: one, confidence in President Obama. He told me “many African-Americans’ feelings about themselves, in terms of Mr. Obama being president, are definitely still very positive…many African-Americans never thought they would actually see a black person elected president.”

Separately, he said blacks are a lot more accustomed to hard times than white people. He cited a saying in the black community: “when white people catch a cold, blacks catch pneumonia.”

And third, he asserted, “things have been done: an extension of unemployment benefits, a lot of black churches doing what they can to provide support.”

Even more interesting were Bositis’ comments on another finding in the Pew survey: that a majority of blacks (54 percent) say they believe Mr. Obama’s election has improved race relations; and that “there is little to suggest that (increasingly) negative opinions about President Obama among whites have been driven mostly by race.”

Bositis pointed out that the United States “is still quite a segregated country, so it’s not like talking about….people living in proximity to each other.” He rejected the idea that relations have improved in a marked way: “yes, in Colorado and Illinois and Virginia, these are very different places than what they were. But in terms of places where race has historically been the biggest problem – especially the South – I think race is as big an issue as it’s ever been.”