Black and White, But Still One Nation

COMMENTARY on the position of blacks and whites in the United States often dwells on the gulf between the two groups. The differences are in fact huge - ranging from historical experience, when blacks alone among Americans were subjected to slavery and then persistent gross discrimination - to present-day economic status. Racial violence, such as that which has plagued New York City in recent months, adds to this sense of separateness. Nonetheless, unremitting attention to such divisions yields a view of American race relations that is seriously incomplete. A comparison of the outlook of blacks and whites, just completed at the Roper Center, reminds us that impressive commonalties exist side by side with the apparent differences.

In a few areas, blacks and whites do indeed diverge sharply in their political stands. For example, blacks have for a quarter century been uniquely committed to the Democratic Party. In the presidential balloting last Nov. 8, roughly 90 percent of black voters backed Michael Dukakis's bid - more than twice the level of support whites gave him. The election-day poll taken by ABC News and the Washington Post found 83 percent of blacks, compared to just 37 percent of whites, identifying as Democrats.

The two groups also differ on whether government should do more to help people in need. The gap is greatest, not surprisingly, on assistance for blacks themselves, but it is consistently large whenever government aid is at issue. The University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center (NORC) asks respondents to locate themselves on a scale which runs from strong backing for ``the government in Washington [doing] everything possible to improve the standard of living of all poor Americans'' to, at the other end, believing ``each person should take care of himself.'' In several national surveys NORC took between 1984 and 1988 - combined here to provide a larger number of respondents - 55 percent of blacks but just 26 percent of whites favored the first position.

In most areas, though, black Americans don't differ much at all from whites either in immediate policy preferences or larger social values. Blacks are more inclined than whites to call themselves liberals, but only modestly so. Surveys done in the early to mid-1970s found them less likely than whites to express high confidence in the country's armed forces; now, however, the two groups differ not at all on this matter, and both give the military good marks compared to most institutions.

More striking is the extent to which the groups share social values and basic judgments about how American society should be organized. Beliefs about individual responsibility and opportunity are a case in point. Asked in the NORC surveys whether they think ``people get ahead through their own hard work,'' or that ``lucky breaks or help from other people are more important,'' 61 percent of blacks said work does it, only 20 percent that luck or preference is decisive (19 percent thought both equally important). Whites answered much the same.

Having faced higher barriers than any other US ethnic group, blacks might be expected to insist that race determines advancement more than do factors which individuals can themselves shape, such as their education and willingness to work. But instead they again respond as whites do. In a national survey taken last October by Northwestern University's Survey Laboratory, 97 percent of blacks said having a good education is essential or very important to getting ahead, and 93 percent described hard work as central. Only 38 percent said race was a key factor. To grant that the social system lets people advance through their own initiatives is to pay it a high compliment - some critics would say too high. But blacks and whites alike now take this stand consistently.

Two decades ago, it seemed an open question whether young blacks would opt to join ``the system'' or reject it. Advocates of black separatism had a substantial following. Today, black students are among the most unequivocal supporters of the American system's traditional claims and aspirations. Sociologists Richard G. Braungart and Margaret M. Braungart reported recently that surveys of college freshmen show those entering historically black colleges ``highly committed to mainstream society and to following the American dream of upward economic and social inability.'' These students, the Braungarts write, ``adhere to the Protestant ethic more than most college youth today. They want to make something of themselves, aspiring to high-status careers where they can earn financial security, have authority, and take on responsibility.''

The US is often described as ``two nations'' racially, and in some areas the gulf between black and white America remains wide. It is emphatically not two nations, though, but to perhaps a surprising extent one in philosophy and values. We err badly when we overlook the breadth of this agreement, or minimize its importance as a base on which to build a more equitable society.

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