Blacks' Political Engagement Spikes, Though Racial Divisions Remain Deep

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.

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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.

Race & Discrimination in America

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.

And even with their enthusiasm for Obama, blacks by a wide margin, 60-23 percent, say it's more important for African-Americans to build economic rather than political power.

Another key finding, perhaps surprising given personal experience, is that blacks do not broadly blame racism as the chief barrier African-Americans face in improving their situation.

While 37 percent say racism is the more important factor, slightly more, 44 percent, say it's lack of initiative among blacks themselves. (Half of Hispanics, and 56 percent of whites, share that view.)

Life experience again is a factor: Blacks who've often experienced discrimination are 20 points more apt than those who haven't experienced it at all to call racism the main barrier facing blacks.

Barack Obama's Historic Candidacy Injects Race into Presidential Campaign

Changes in political engagement among blacks are remarkable: Eighty-four percent report being registered to vote, up from 78 percent in the 2004 ABC News/Washington Post pre-election tracking poll, and likewise more than in ABC pre-election polls dating to 1984. (Fewer Hispanics, 69 percent, report being registered.)

Fifty-six percent of blacks also say they're following the election very closely, compared with 48 percent of whites and 33 percent of Hispanics; that's the highest level of engagement among blacks since 1992 – 9 points higher than in pre-election 2004, 21 points higher than in 2000 and 24 points higher than in 1996.

Nearly a third of blacks, 31 percent, say they've donated money to a political campaign, compared with 21 percent of whites and 16 percent of Hispanics.

Fourteen percent of blacks say they've worked for a political party or candidate in the past year, twice the rate among whites and Hispanics. And, locally, blacks are more apt than whites and Hispanics, by 9 and 12 points, to report having attended a town or school meeting.

Blacks broadly reject the suggestion that Obama has avoided issues of special concern to African-Americans in order to sharpen his appeal to whites. At the same time, race is a vast differentiator: Among registered voters, 92 percent of blacks support Obama over John McCain, as do 57 percent of Hispanics but just 36 percent of whites.

Still, support among whites for McCain over Obama, 56-36 percent, can't easily be seen as based on the candidates' races, since whites divided by a similar 58-41 percent for George W. Bush over John Kerry, and by as wide or wider margins for George H.W. Bush in 1988 and for Ronald Reagan in both of his elections.

Similarly, Obama's 92 percent support from blacks is much like Kerry's 88 percent and Al Gore's 90 percent; blacks are the single most reliable Democratic voting group.

Nonetheless, Obama's candidacy clearly has struck a chord with blacks.

Fifty-one percent say his nomination makes them more proud to be Americans – down from its peak, 64 percent, during his nominating convention, but still a substantial number.

Notably, there are some whites who are particularly in tune with African-American concerns, and more apt than their counterparts to support Obama.

Nearly a third of whites, 32 percent, say blacks have too little influence over government policies; they support Obama by 58-39 percent. Whites who instead say blacks have the right amount of influence, or the few who say they have too much, back McCain by 66-27 percent.

Similarly, Obama leads McCain by nearly 2-1 among whites who support race-based affirmative action; McCain leads by nearly 3-1 among whites who oppose it.

Seventy percent of blacks say there's such a thing as a "black experience." Among them, 89 percent say Obama's in touch with it. Seventy-one percent of blacks say Obama's mainly addressing concerns of special interest to blacks; just 16 percent say he's avoiding them. And few blacks – just 12 percent – think Obama is playing to whites when he urges that blacks take greater responsibility for their actions.

Most Americans across the board reject the notion that if Obama were elected blacks would gain too much influence in government: Just five percent of blacks, 10 percent of whites and 13 percent of Hispanic say so.

Great Expectations for Obama

Some blacks are keeping their expectations muted; while nine in 10 support Obama, fewer, albeit a still-high 72 percent, expect him to win.

Just 13 percent of blacks expect McCain to win.

Asked why, the most prevalent answer by far is racism or an unwillingness among whites to vote for Obama, volunteered by 40 percent in this group. Still, that means that overall just 5 percent of blacks expect McCain to win and racism to be the reason. (Whites and Hispanics who expect McCain to win attribute that more to his experience than to any other cause; very few cite racism.)

The view that Obama's candidacy will change blacks' self-image peaks among his supporters, but remains prevalent among others.

Seventy-four percent of Obama supporters think his candidacy will cause a change for the better in the way blacks think about themselves; this declines to 49 percent of McCain supporters. Even among blacks who think McCain will win, a still-majority 54 percent think Obama's candidacy will change blacks' self-image for the better.

Poll: Blacks Put Economic Security Atop Priority List

There are great differences by race in local issues and national political priorities alike.

A vast 71 percent of blacks identify a lack of jobs and other economic opportunities as a serious problem in their own community; just 37 percent of whites report the same concern.

Fifty-five percent of blacks say their community suffers from poor schools; among whites, it's just 25 percent. On these, most blacks and whites alike say they blame not individuals, but conditions in society more broadly.

There are other issue differences, some seen as individual in cause, others social. Forty-two percent of blacks call crime a serious problem in their community, and nearly as many Hispanics agree, while this drops sharply to 19 percent among whites.

Blacks and Hispanics alike also are at least twice as likely as whites to identify domestic violence, teen pregnancy and lack of volunteerism as serious community problems, and also more apt to report serious problems with the prevalence of unwed mothers and an absence of high moral and ethical standards.

Blacks are particularly attuned to another issue, the treatment of African-Americans in the criminal justice system: Sixty-eight percent call it a serious problem in their community, essentially matching lack of economic opportunity as the No. 1 local concern. Concern about this issue drops sharply to a third of Hispanics and just 17 percent among whites.

There are some differences on local issues within black groups; among them lower-income blacks are much more likely than those with middle or higher incomes to rate crime, drugs, teen pregnancy, single mothers and domestic violence as serious problems in their area.

Striking Differences in National Issues

On the national front, there are several issues on which blacks and Hispanics are far more likely than whites to desire top priority attention from the next administration. Those include poverty programs, the minimum wage, affirmative action, health care, education and criminal justice.

Some of these differences, again, are particularly striking.

Fifty percent of whites say the next administration should give its highest priority to health care issues; that jumps to 72 percent of blacks and Hispanics alike.

Education is similar – 50 percent of whites give it top priority, rising to seven in 10 blacks and Hispanics. And just 38 percent of whites give highest priority to poverty programs; that jumps to nearly two-thirds of blacks and Hispanics.

Hispanics, for their part, are much more apt than whites or blacks to cite immigration as a top priority. Nonetheless the agreement of most blacks and Hispanics on many of these issues may serve to diminish the notion of a so-called black-brown divide; the two groups have much in common on a range of issue concerns and priorities, if not all.

Indeed among all groups – blacks, whites and Hispanics alike – there's agreement on the single top issue, the economy. Seventy-six percent of whites, and 80 percent of blacks and Hispanics, say it should get the government's highest priority.

In another measure, the economy is by far the single most important issue in the presidential race, cited by just under four in 10 whites and Hispanics, and even more blacks, 50 percent. And in a gauge strongly influenced by economic discontent, three-quarters of whites and Hispanics, rising to 91 percent of blacks, say the country's "seriously off on the wrong track."

Affirmative Action

There are big racial differences on race-based affirmative action programs; support ranges from 76 percent of blacks to 57 percent of Hispanics and down to a third of whites.

But there's a way to reduce this divide: Majorities of all races support such programs if they're poverty-based rather than race-based. And majorities support either race- or poverty-based programs that give assistance, rather than preference, to their targeted constituencies.

Anywhere from 76 to 82 percent of blacks support any of these approaches to affirmative action. But among Hispanics, support swells from 57 percent to more than seven in 10 if the approach moves away from race-based preference.

And among whites the change is most dramatic: While just 33 percent support race-based preference programs, six in 10 favor poverty-based preference programs or race-based assistance programs, and more still favor poverty-based assistance programs.

Support for affirmative action peaks among blacks who've personally experienced racial discrimination; in this group 81 percent support race-based preference programs, compared with 62 percent of whose who haven't experienced discrimination.

All the same, affirmative action is not a top-tier issue. It was given highest priority by about three in 10 blacks and Hispanics and just 9 percent of whites – in all cases, far below other, more pressing concerns.

One issue rates lower still, the idea of government reparations for slavery.

Twenty-four percent of blacks assign it a top priority, last on the list even for blacks. Reparations are of greater interest to low-education blacks (30 percent give it a top priority) than to those with college degrees (just 5 percent).

Blacks Still Reach for Racial Equality

There's general agreement across groups that blacks have not yet achieved racial equality, though with still-wide differences: Just under four in 10 whites think so, declining to a quarter of Hispanics and just 11 percent of blacks themselves.

Most think that, if not yet, they will soon; but a substantial number of blacks, 44 percent, think racial equality will not come in their lifetime, or will never come.

There are differences among groups. Pessimism, as noted, peaks among blacks who've personally experienced racial discrimination – 50 percent in this group say equality will not come in their lifetime, or won't ever come; among those who haven't experienced discrimination just 26 percent say so.

Blacks divide, 49-46 percent, on whether they need to play down their racial identity in order to get ahead (most whites and Hispanics think not). As noted, blacks who've personally experienced discrimination are more apt to think it's necessary for blacks to play down their racial identity. And this view peaks among higher-income blacks; among those with $100,000 incomes, 63 percent think they have to play down their racial identity. That drops to 48 percent among those with lower incomes.

In another measure, slightly more blacks say the history of slavery has too much rather than too little influence in how blacks think about themselves today, 31 percent vs. 26 percent, with the rest saying it's about right. (Whites and Hispanics say it has too much influence, by much wider margins.)

Blacks are inclined to reach out: Eighty-six percent say they're better off building coalitions with other ethnic and racial groups than working alone to solve community problems. But they also display group cohesion; 64 percent of blacks think that what happens to blacks generally impacts them personally.

Some of that, as with many views among blacks, is influenced by racial discrimination. Among blacks who've experienced discrimination, 70 percent say they're impacted by what happens to others of their race. Among blacks who haven't felt discrimination, far fewer, 48 percent, share that view.

METHODOLOGY: This ABC News/USA Today/Columbia University poll was conducted by telephone Sept. 11-14, 2008, among a random national sample of 1,941 adults, including oversamples of African-Americans (for a total of 1,032) and Hispanics (315). Groups were weighted to their correct share of the national population. Results for the full sample have a 2-point error margin; for blacks, 3 points; for whites, 4 points; and for Hispanics, 5.5 points. Columbia's University's participation in the survey was supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by Social Science Research Solutions at ICR-International Communications Research of Media, Pa.

Click here for a PDF with charts and full questionnaire.