Barack Obama's candidacy for president both underscores sharp racial divides in this country and offers avenues for progress: Political engagement by blacks is up sharply, Americans across racial lines think the 2008 campaign will change blacks' self-image for the better and most see Obama's nomination as a sign of broader racial progress.
It's already fostered pride and involvement alike. Blacks are following the election more intensely than other Americans, at a level unseen in the last three presidential elections. They're more apt than Americans of other races to have contributed money or time to a political campaign this year. And voter registration by blacks is higher than in pre-election polls since 1984.
Regardless of their candidate preference, 61 percent of Americans – 70 percent of blacks, and about six in 10 whites and Hispanics alike – think Obama's candidacy will change the way blacks think about themselves, and nearly all who feel that way say it'll be for the better.
Seven in 10 Americans, similarly, think his candidacy represents broader progress for all blacks, not a single case of individual advancement.
But beyond that agreement this ABC News/USA Today/Columbia University poll also finds broad divides among the races, in vote choices, issue concerns, life experiences and identity. And there are further divides among blacks themselves, on fundamental questions of racial identity, individual initiative and the root causes of social problems.
This extensive poll on race, politics and society was conducted with the participation of Columbia University's Center on African-American Politics and Society, part of its Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy. Interviews were done among random national samples of 1,941 adults, including 1,032 blacks and 315 Hispanics (the latter interviewed in English or Spanish, as preferred).
It finds, strikingly, that 76 percent of blacks say they personally have encountered racial discrimination, as do 58 percent of Hispanics; that falls very steeply among whites, to 29 percent.
The experience of discrimination resonates across a range of other attitudes: Blacks who've experienced it, are, for instance, far less likely to see racial equality as achievable in their lifetimes, more likely to think they need to play down their racial identity in order to succeed, more apt to see racism as the root of blacks' challenges and more likely to favor race-based affirmative action.
Identity is another basic point of division.
Blacks split evenly, 45-46 percent, on whether they think of themselves first as blacks or as Americans (with black identity higher among blacks who've experienced discrimination). Hispanics divide similarly on the question – 42 percent think of themselves as Hispanics first, 50 percent as Americans. Whites are different: Ninety-one percent see themselves first as Americans, while just 4 percent profess greater racial than national identity.
At the same time, in a finding with broad potential ramifications, class identity trumps racial identity: Sixty percent of blacks, and about as many Hispanics as well, say they have more in common with members of their social class (e.g., working-class or middle-class) than with members of their race.