Values of blacks and whites are converging, survey finds

Sixty-one percent of blacks say the dividing lines in values have more to do with economic class than with race – a big jump since a previous poll in 1986.

Despite a surge in pessimism about their economic prospects, black Americans are more likely to blame individual failings – not racial prejudice – for the lack of progress by lower-income blacks, a significant change in attitudes from the early 1990s.

At the same time, black college graduates say the values of middle-class blacks are more closely aligned with those of middle-class whites than those of lower-income blacks, according to the survey released Tuesday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

Of those surveyed, 40 percent also said blacks no longer could be viewed as a single community.

In 1994, 60 percent of blacks polled said they believed racial prejudice was the main thing keeping blacks from economic success, the Pew center says. Only 33 percent blamed individuals themselves. Although views on the issue have shifted over time, this is the first time a majority of blacks – 53 percent – say individuals are responsible for their own condition.

At the same time, the survey found that most blacks believe racial prejudice still is a widespread problem.

Pew director Andrew Kohut reports that 2 of 3 blacks surveyed say blacks often face discrimination when they apply for work or look for housing. Just 20 percent of whites agree with the employment assessment, and 27 percent with the housing assessment.

One result of shifting attitudes about individual responsibility might be changes in blacks' attitudes toward immigrants. In 1986, 74 percent of black Americans said they would have more opportunities if fewer immigrants were in the United States; only 48 percent said that this time. Both blacks and whites who were polled agree that immigrants tend to work harder at low-wage jobs than workers of the other two races.

On the topic of diverging values, 44 percent of blacks polled in 1986 said they saw greater differences created by class than by race. Today, that percentage has grown to 61 percent.

The feeling holds for blacks with less than a high school education: 57 percent of those surveyed say middle-class blacks are more like middle-class whites than like disadvantaged blacks.

"The values of the bottom and the top are different," says Mr. Kohut.

Overall, the survey found a convergence of values held by blacks and whites. For example, a majority of both groups say rap and hip-hop music have had a negative influence on society. "Blacks and whites have become more culturally integrated and, therefore, less-affluent blacks feel more estranged," Kohut says.

The survey also found that pessimism about economic prospects has grown throughout the black community. Fewer than half – 44 percent – of those polled say they expect life to get better. Twenty years ago, 57 percent said they thought life would improve.

"People are quite anxious," Kohut says. "They do not see the kind of forward momentum that blacks saw in earlier times."

One reason for the pessimism might be that the condition of the black middle class appears to be more fragile than that of whites. About 45 percent of black children who grow up in middle-class families will slip into a lower-income bracket in adulthood, according to a separate study on economic mobility, sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The share of white children unable to match their parents' success is about 16 percent.

Changing family structures may be partly responsible, says John Morton, director of the economic-mobility study. "There is a higher prevalence of single-parent families at a time that it is increasingly important to have two salaries to maintain a standard of living."

The Pew poll, which interviewed more than 3,000 people in September and October, had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points. The margin was slightly higher when the attitudes of blacks, whites, and Hispanics were considered separately.

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