Public Opinion Review

Executive Summary

Without question, the last half-century has witnessed an enormous shift in public attitudes toward black-white relations, segregation, and blatant prejudice. At the same time, racial tensions, obstacles, and stereotypes persist, and Americans of different racial and ethnic backgrounds hold divergent understandings of the issues facing black men, discrimination, and the causes of racial disparities.

Besides contributing to a negative civic environment, stereotypes and fundamental disagreements in understanding issues matter because they may undermine support for policies that can help strengthen communities and address racial disparities.

The analysis that follows provides a (necessarily brief) overview of some central themes emerging from public opinion research regarding understandings of black male achievement, awareness of racial disparities, and the causes of and responsibility for addressing them. It is intended to offer communicators a synthesis of key ideas that exist in public understanding that can either derail the conversation or move it forward.

This analysis highlights the views of black men, and about black men and the issues they face.

Throughout, much of the focus is on differences between black and white survey respondents, and the challenges suggested by divergent opinions.1 It takes research findings that seem contradictory and divisive on the surface, and offers a perspective to make sense of the underlying dynamics at play.

Perceptions of and by black men

More African-American men experience significant life challenges than do white men. African- American men also have higher levels of worry, and are harsher in their judgment of black men as well. For example:

  • Black men are more likely than white men to say they have faced a number of traumatic experiences, from murdered friends to wrongful arrest to being a victim of a violent crime.
  • African-American men cite higher levels of worry about a range of concerns.
  • Black men consider a number of problems facing them severe, and are harshly critical of the priorities of black men as a group. For example, they are critical of what they see as black men’s insufficient emphasis on education, health, family, and   work.

At the same time, more black men than white men say they are focused on achieving success in a career, or on living a religious life, and more black men say they are optimistic about a bright future. In just about every area, black men are their own harshest critics, as well as the most optimistic that things will be better.

Disparities and discrimination

People of color, including African Americans, view discrimination as widespread and as leading to disparities in education, income, health, and imprisonment. White Americans recognize that

discrimination still exists, and while they generally understand that disparities between the races exist, they underestimate the extent of racial disparities, downplay the prevalence of discrimination, and they do not see discrimination as an influence on disparities.

Though responses from whites and African Americans to questions about discrimination and disparities are almost always at odds, we see hope in this pattern, as it seems clear that responses diverge because white Americans and black Americans have different understandings of what racial disparities are “about” — just the kind of challenge that communications reframing is designed to overcome.

First, African Americans have a more encompassing view of how discrimination unfolds than white Americans do. For white Americans, discrimination tends to be about relationships between individuals — interpersonal relationships. Black Americans, however, have an understanding that extends beyond the personal to include the way discriminatory practices can be embedded in policies and institutions. So even if all people recognize that discrimination exists, white people tend to think it is due to personal prejudice and are less likely to see the influence of institutional racism, obscuring the role of collective action and policy solutions.

Questions in public opinion surveys almost always imply that discrimination is about personal prejudice and “race relations,” as though the issue is solely about personal interactions and individual behavior. The role of institutions and systems is largely unstated and rarely explored.

Similarly, black Americans and white Americans tend to have different understandings of how disparities arise, and therefore different interpretations of who or what is responsible for addressing disparities. Analysts often point to a contrast between “individual” and “structural” explanations for disparities:

  • Overall, roughly equal percentages choose an explanation for disparities grounded in individual responsibility (e.g., do individuals have the motivation to pull themselves up) and structural obstacles (e.g., will individuals have the chance for education). However, black respondents are more likely to point to structural obstacles while white respondents are more likely to point to individual responsibility.
  • Overall, one-third point to discrimination, but far more black respondents than white respondents say discrimination leads to disparities.
  • Few choose the blatantly prejudiced belief that black people have less ability to learn.

With these divergent understandings of discrimination and disparities in mind, communicators need to take into account whether they are implicitly sending a message that works against the notion of collective responsibility. They need to keep in mind the following frames that dominate Americans’ thinking about responsibility:

  • “Me” and “Personal Responsibility” — Individuals are responsible for achieving their own success; therefore, individuals have to create their own solutions.
    • As a general stance, Americans overwhelmingly believe in personal empowerment and self- determination.
    • Similarly, as an explanation for disparities and problems facing black men, people turn to the idea of individual responsibility. In this view, racial disparities exist because individuals  of different races are not trying equally hard to achieve, and black people need to take more responsibility.
    • The “me” stance is gaining ground; black respondents have shifted toward a personal responsibility perspective to explain gaps in black achievement since the mid-1990s.

This approach is unlikely to lead to collective action.

  • “They” and “Interpersonal Relations” are Responsible — Discriminatory behavior by individual white Americans directed toward individual black Americans is the cause of racial disparities; prejudiced individuals are responsible for disparities and attitude change is the solution.
    • This stance is the normative standpoint embedded in most public opinion research, and the default pattern that often results in an “us and them” confrontational conversation. In this view, the problem is defined as how individuals treat each other; therefore, the solution is attitude change and stripping culture of stereotypes.
    • White Americans and black Americans have divergent views regarding the prevalence of discrimination and its role in creating disparities.
    • Most Americans believe that race relations are good, that problems will be worked out, and that more dialogue will help. 
  • “All of Us” and “Structures” are Responsible — The choices we have collectively made, and the systems we have created, have led to disparities that hold us all back. This stance relies both on a sense of interdependence and an understanding of structural dynamics.
    • Public understanding of the influence of structures or systems in leading to gaps in achievement is a very limited area of inquiry in public opinion surveys.
    • The few questions that explore some aspect of systemic influences demonstrate divergent views between racial groups.

This stance creates more opportunity for collective action and policy change, compared to an individual responsibility stance.

Issue focus

There are reasons to be optimistic about developing an “All of Us” conversation that leads to broad- based support for collective action and policy change. While any number of issue areas may be advantaged by such an approach, three policies rise to the top:

  • Education: Education shows potential as an issue that can cross race, engage white people in  coalition with black communities, and energize black men on their own behalf and on behalf of   their families. It affords the opportunity to discuss what we can do collectively to advance people’s well-being, rather than allow people to simply blame lack of ambition and hard work.
    • Education is a top priority and concern for all Americans, and one area where people readily see a collective stake and a collective responsibility.
    • There is widespread agreement that education matters to economic mobility, and the role of education in creating opportunity is particularly valued in the black community.
    • Importantly, Americans are willing to make low-income and minority children a priority in education efforts. 
  • Jobs/Income: The current weak economy has highlighted the role of broken systems in people’s economic well-being, although this issue can easily lead to racial divisions and zero-sum thinking if not framed carefully.
    • Jobs, income, and the economy are at the top of Americans’ agendas, and are central to efforts  to address racial  disparities.
    • In the current economy, people are more able to see the role of systems/structures in aiding or impeding individual success (though opinion continues to emphasize individual responsibility).
    • However, jobs and income represent an area where the role of race seems particularly divisive and where stereotypes are persistent.
    • There is widespread support for a number of policies that would improve economic mobility. However, African Americans support an active, engaged role for government, while white Americans are more likely to see government as the problem.2
  • Crime and Justice: Black Americans rate crime as a top priority and police bias as a serious problem. Of all the issue areas, white respondents are most likely to respond that black Americans may receive different treatment in the justice system (though even here the percentages are not high and successful framing will be key).
    • Crime has declined as a national priority, and yet, crime continues to be a top concern among black respondents.
    • Surveys consistently show that black respondents have less confidence in police and in the justice system generally than white respondents  do.

Finally, many organizations have taken up “fatherhood” as an important issue for black men and the black community generally. The public opinion research base for fatherhood initiatives is rather thin, and tends to focus narrowly on personal behaviors and involvement with children, rather than take a broader view on policy or social action.

Communications directions

In some respects, there has been a significant amount of research recommending messaging on issues of race. However, much of this research is limited in its utility either because it was designed to accomplish a narrow goal (and therefore is ineffective or even harmful for broader goals), or because its focus is so broad it can be difficult to demonstrate effectiveness in advancing specific policy objectives.

There are a number of framing choices that continue to be controversial: should advocates communicate about race or class, race or place, etc. Strategists often recommend avoiding race due to the well-known and obvious pitfalls in trying to have a frank conversation about disparities; advocates (quite rightly) are frequently dissatisfied with that recommendation, and seek research on how — not whether — to discuss race and equal opportunity.

Even researchers who have been studying and recommending strategies on this issue for some time may find it difficult to build support among communicators for a particular approach, to refine their recommendations, and to demonstrate success. While much work needs to be done, this review finds three promising directions for further consideration and development:

  • Calling attention to effective solutions to disparities (and existing institutional bias), a color- conscious strategy that highlights proven solutions;
  • Explaining the role of structures and systems in leading to disparities, thereby overcoming the “personal responsibility” barrier; and
  • Creating a sense of interdependence and shared fate, thereby breaking down the “group competition” that is pervasive in racial attitudes.

In sum, we need to develop communications strategies that join people in common purpose and shared fate, while not erasing race in the process. This analysis points to the need for a frame flip and a unifying narrative to break through deeply entrenched views on these issues. Specifically, new framing on this issue needs to: mend the in-group/out-group cycle and establish a sense of “we” in a shared fate; look for ways to characterize the unique challenges facing black men while not inadvertently implying that other groups will have less opportunity, e.g., “breaking down obstacles” instead of “addressing disparities”; and harmonize the broad overarching narrative about black male achievement with specific issue categories that most matter to African-American men — jobs and income, education, and criminal  justice.

The analysis that follows is just one part of a much larger effort to understand the current context, and to create a path forward.