Obama's rise spotlights gains in race relations

It's not all black and white.

Americans across racial and ethnic lines say Barack Obama's groundbreaking candidacy has both spotlighted the state of race relations in the United States and changed it.

A nationwide survey exploring the complicated crosscurrents of race and politics — co-sponsored by USA TODAY, ABC News and Columbia University — finds that the first nomination of an African American for president by a major party has prompted a surge in national pride and political engagement among blacks.

It also shows a clear consensus among whites, blacks and Hispanics about the top priorities for the next president, especially when it comes to the economy.

Fredrick Harris, director of the Center on African-American Politics and Society at Columbia, says the poll results may signal "the passing of a generation" as many blacks move toward "race-neutral" solutions to economic and other challenges.

He notes that African Americans split evenly when asked whether they saw themselves as blacks first or Americans first. "That's quite new for a group that's been marginalized in society and considered second-class citizens for much of its history," he says.

But the survey also makes clear that blacks and whites see the presidential campaign through different prisms.

Seven in 10 blacks expect Obama to win in November. Among the 13% who predict Republican John McCain will prevail, racism is the reason most often cited. The 50% of whites who expect McCain to win are most likely to cite the candidates' levels of experience as the reason. Only 5% of whites who say McCain will win call racism the key factor.

"Especially with the economy the way that it is, the fact that we're in two wars — I don't necessarily think that people will choose somebody who really doesn't have all that much experience," says Andrew Dufkin, 22, a student and painter from Coxsackie, N.Y., who is white. He was among those called in the survey.

However, Lee Rutledge, 65, a freelance writer from Riverside, Calif., who is black, says that racism "is always kind of lurking in the background," although the "Whites Only" signs he saw when stationed by the Army in Georgia in 1964 are a thing of the past.

Beyond politics, blacks and Hispanics are much more likely than whites to see racism as a persistent problem in their communities and to report it as part of their own lives. Six of 10 blacks and 4 of 10 Hispanics say they personally have experienced discrimination often or occasionally, compared with 14% of whites.

Blacks also are much more likely than whites to report serious problems in their neighborhoods with crime, poor schools and a lack of jobs. They put a higher priority on addressing poverty, inequalities in the criminal justice system and reparations for slavery than whites do.

Hispanics rank immigration as a more critical issue than non-Hispanics do.

Even so, the current angst over the economy bridges racial and ethnic divides. Blacks, whites and Hispanics agree that the economy and jobs should head the new president's agenda in January. The other concerns near the top of everyone's list: terrorism, health care and education.

By overwhelming margins, all three groups agree that the country is on the wrong track. One-third or a bit more of whites, blacks and Hispanics say they feel financially insecure.

"We are all searching for the same thing: a better life for ourselves and a better life for our children," says Debbie Seymore, 49, a Hispanic woman from Boca Raton, Fla., who works for a communications company. "I've been working for this company for 27 years now, and every day I wonder, 'Am I going to get laid off?' "

The economy and health care "matter to everybody," says Diana Butler, 56, a school bus attendant from Washington, D.C., who is black, "because everybody is in the same boat."

The 'black experience'

The telephone survey of 1,032 blacks, 543 non-Hispanic whites and 315 Hispanics, who can be of any race, was taken Sept. 11-14, just before last week's Wall Street maelstrom broke into public view. To encourage candid responses to sometimes sensitive questions, three-fourths of the respondents were surveyed by poll takers of their own race. Interviews with Latinos were conducted in English and Spanish.

The racial divide is sharp in the presidential election. Among registered voters:

• Blacks support Obama by 92%-4%.

• Hispanics support Obama by 57%-33%.

• Whites support McCain by 56%-36%.

That partisan divide isn't unusual; African Americans make up the Democrats' most loyal voter group. Four years ago, Democrat John Kerry received 88% of the black vote, according to surveys of voters as they left polling places. Republican George W. Bush received 58% of the white vote.

What's different this time is the high level of engagement by African Americans, which could signal an increase in turnout on Election Day. Blacks are following the presidential contest more closely than whites this year. They are 50% more likely to say they've contributed to a campaign and twice as likely to say they've worked for a candidate.

North Carolina, Alabama and other states also report a jump in voter registration by blacks.

That's true even though Obama usually hasn't chosen to emphasize his race, focusing instead on winning over white voters critical in the Democratic primaries earlier this year and in the general election Nov. 4. At the Democratic convention in Denver last month, the landmark nature of his candidacy was rarely mentioned from the podium.

Some older civil rights leaders, including Jesse Jackson, have complained that Obama has done too little to address issues of particular concern to blacks and that his remarks on the need for more personal responsibility by black fathers and others were an effort to curry white support.

Those complaints have gained little traction, the survey finds. Seven of 10 African Americans say Obama has been addressing issues of special concern to blacks. (Just one-third of whites say that.) By 4-1, blacks say Obama's calls for personal responsibility were made more to appeal to blacks than to whites.

Of those African Americans who say there is a distinctive "black experience" in America, nine of 10 say Obama is in touch with that experience.

Obama's nomination "shows the country is changing for the better a little bit as far as racism is concerned," says Paul Rhodes, 51, a Detroit resident who is black and was surveyed.

"I do think it is a big breakthrough," says Kelly Benchoff, 33, a stay-at-home mom from Tucson who is white. "It's also a great breakthrough that Sarah Palin is on the Republican ticket as well. It doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman, black or white, or whatever race you are — it's the ideas you have for the country and who supports you on them."

'Black, white, purple, green'

Some of those surveyed say news reporters and commentators are making too big a deal of Obama's race.

"It doesn't matter if you're black, white, purple, green — just as long as you do the right thing when you get into office," says Natanya Hopkins, 31. A student from Columbus, Ga., who is black, she supports Obama.

"I think Obama was the right person at the time," says Brian Douglas, 31, an engineer from Jericho, Vt., who is white and supports McCain. "He was the best candidate that the Democrats had at the time, regardless of race."

Among whites, only 10% say they're concerned that Obama's election would give blacks too much influence over government policies, the same number who worry that blacks would have too little influence if that happens.

On the other hand, an AP-Yahoo News poll on racial attitudes released Saturday concluded that one-third of white Democrats and independents attributed negative characteristics such as laziness or violence to blacks, creating a serious electoral hurdle for Obama. The online survey used a technique called "affect misattribution," which involves showing a series of faces of people of different races quickly on a screen before displaying a neutral image to assess.

In the USA TODAY poll, whites by 56%-29% say that a "lack of initiative" is a bigger factor than racism in the difficulties blacks face. "You have a lot of people who want something for nothing," says Tom McKenna, 61, a retiree from Aurora, Ind., who is white.

Blacks by 44%-37% also chose a lack of initiative as the more significant factor.

Across racial lines, those surveyed see Obama's candidacy as a force for change:

• An overwhelming 79% of blacks, 71% of whites and 68% of Hispanics say his nomination represents not only an individual achievement but also progress for blacks in America generally.

• By wide margins, all three groups predict his candidacy will change the way black people think about themselves. Nearly all of those say the change will be for the better.

• A 51% majority of blacks say Obama's nomination makes them prouder to be an American; 47% say it doesn't affect their feelings about the country. In comparison, 36% of whites say his nomination makes them prouder; 61% say it doesn't affect their sense of pride.

Rhodes is particularly proud that Obama won the nomination in large part because of support in primaries and caucuses from white voters. "He won in some white states like Utah and Idaho, and you can't get much whiter than that," he says.

"It wouldn't be a good thing only for African-American people to see that if you work hard you can follow your dream and things can happen," says Dominique Flournoy, 22, a black customer-service representative from Phoenix. "Those who are just becoming Americans can see that you don't have to be a certain color to achieve certain goals in life."

A matter of race and income

Flournoy doesn't expect the nation's racial problems to vanish if Obama is elected.

"Just because we may have the first African-American president, it doesn't mean that all African Americans will be living better," she says. "We still as a group of people would have to work extra hard and work just as hard as the next person to succeed."

Racial divides persist on some issues. Among blacks, 76% support affirmative action programs based on race; 61% of whites oppose them. Still, solid majorities of blacks, whites and Hispanics support such programs for hiring, promotions and college admissions if they are based on income instead of race.

Some aspects of racial identity that fueled the civil rights movement in the 1960s seem to have eased. In the survey, most blacks and whites say blacks should "work within the system" rather than protest to get ahead. By nearly 3-1, blacks say they should concentrate on building economic power rather than gaining political power.

Blacks, whites and Hispanics say by wide margins that they have more in common with those in their economic and social class than with those of their race.

And the goal of racial equality?

Most Americans say equality for blacks has been achieved already or will be achieved in the foreseeable future, although the 75% of whites who take that view outnumber the 52% of blacks who hold it. Less optimistic: 20% of whites, 25% of Hispanics and 44% of blacks who say racial equality won't be achieved "in my lifetime" or beyond.

William Cook, 42, of Bonham, Texas, a counselor now working on a master's degree, is among the optimists. Obama's candidacy "speaks volumes for the progress that we've made as a nation," says Cook, who is black.

"Have they achieved full equality? Probably not, but I think they certainly will relatively soon," says Dufkin, who is white. "It's definitely a work in progress."

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