July 14, 2008

Obama’s Black Audience

What Surveys Show About the Attitudes and Priorities of African Americans

by Jodie T. Allen, Senior Editor, Pew Research Center

Who is more in touch with the African American public? Presidential aspirant Sen. Barack Obama, who has called for an expansion of faith-based social service programs and for more responsibility among black men in caring for their children? Or critics like the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who was overheard saying that Obama was “talking down to black people,” a comment he later explained was meant as suggesting that the candidate should focus more on “racial justice and urban policy and jobs,” and University of Maryland Professor Ronald Walters who remarked that “we’re not electing [Obama] to be preacher in chief”?

Both camps will no doubt find adherents among the black community, but which can claim the larger band of supporters for their views? Polls conducted by the Pew Research Center over the last year provide some evidence.

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A survey on racial attitudes conducted in association with National Public Radio in November 2007 (Blacks See Growing Values Gap Between Poor and Middle Class)1 found that black Americans are, indeed, concerned about their limited material progress and that optimism about their future has fallen significantly over recent decades. Overall, only 44% of African Americans now foresee an improved life for black people in this country compared with 57% who did so in a 1986 survey.

By the same token, a 58% majority of blacks see a lack of good jobs as a big or very big problem in their local communities, while only 45% of whites do so. Hispanics, however, are considerably more likely than either blacks or whites to worry about the job market (67% see jobs as a big or very big problem).

Blacks are also far more likely than whites to view racial discrimination as an everyday occurrence in the job market (67% vs. 20%) as well as in other settings, and to lack much confidence in local police enforcement of the law (37% vs. 20%) as well as in other aspects of the criminal justice system. They are also more likely to support affirmative action programs (89% vs. 52%) — though, like whites, few see themselves as direct helped or hurt by such preferences – as well as to favor more integration of residential neighborhoods (62% vs. 40%) and to place more importance on racially mixed schools than on local community schools (56% vs. 23%).

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Still, while more blacks than whites see discrimination as the main reason why many blacks can’t get ahead (30% vs. 15%), the majority of African Americans (53%), like the great majority of whites, say that blacks themselves are responsible for their own condition.

And questions about social, cultural and religious values suggest that, in some respects, the black community is at least as traditional in its views as the larger American public.

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On matters of religious faith, the Religious Landscape Survey report released in February found that among all major racial and ethnic groups in the United States, African Americans are the most likely to report a formal religious affiliation. Fully 85% of black adults report belonging to one or another Christian denomination, mostly Protestant. (78%) Even among those who are unaffiliated, 70% of blacks belong to the “religious unaffiliated” category (that is, they say that religion is either somewhat or very important in their lives), compared with slightly more than one-third of the unaffiliated population overall.2

Although blacks are less likely than whites to marry, and much more likely to have children out of marriage, a Pew Research survey on parenthood found roughly the same proportions of blacks and whites (46% and 44%, respectively) said unmarried couples having children was morally wrong.3

On cultural and social issues, the racial attitudes survey found that many blacks share Obama’s concern about several community problems that are often cited as impediments to black advancement. While job availability tops the list of worries, when asked about problems in their own local community half of blacks (50%) cite unwed mothers as a big or very big problem. Crime (49%) and school drop-out rates(46%) are also substantial concerns.

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But it is on questions relating to popular culture and community leaders that the black community is most conservative in its judgments. Fully 71% of blacks say rap music is having a bad influence on today’s society, essentially the same verdict rendered by whites (74%). Hip Hop draws somewhat less, but again roughly equal, condemnation among blacks and whites (61% and 64%, respectively, see it as a bad influence).

What accounts for that bad influence?, In an open-ended question, black Americans, like both whites and Hispanics, most frequently cite bad or offensive lyrics, as well as the negative depiction of women and the promotion of violence or gangs. Overly sexual content, glorification of an unrealistic life style and immoral messages were also frequently cited.

A mix of cultural conservatism and political liberalism is also seen in evaluations given by blacks to African American newsmakers. Asked to rate each of 14 prominent African Americans as having good, bad or little influence on the black community, nearly nine-in-ten blacks (87%) gave a thumbs up to talk show host Oprah Winfrey, an active Obama supporter. In a statistical tie with Oprah (85% positive rating) came comedian, actor and author Bill Cosby, whose exhortations to the black community to get tough on crime, child neglect and other social disorders have drawn wide attention.

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Sen. Obama and Televangelist Bishop T.D. Jakes followed close behind in approval ratings(76% said both had a good influence and only 2% said bad though, at the time, 22% said either that Obama had little influence or was unfamiliar to them). These were followed by former Secretary of State Colin Powell (70% favorable) and Jesse Jackson himself (68% positive).

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice received only a 50% positive rating, but she was still well ahead of the politically conservative Justice Clarence Thomas who was deemed a good influence by only 31%.

Bringing up the rear in the ratings was gangsta rapper 50 Cent. Only 17% of blacks see the performer having a good influence on the African American community. Interestingly, younger African Americans (under age 40) were actually more condemnatory of the rapper than were older blacks.


1 Pew Research Center, Blacks See Growing Values Gap Between Poor and Middle Class, Nov. 13, 2007.

2 Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, February 2008.

3 Pew Research Center, As Marriage and Parenthood Drift Apart, Public Is Concerned about Social Impact, July 2007.