In Old Con­fed­er­acy, racial gap still wide

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - FRONT PAGE - BY ROS­ALIND BENT­LEY NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SER­VICE

63 per­cent of whites be­lieve eco­nomic con­di­tions are get­ting bet­ter 63 per­cent of blacks be­lieve eco­nomic con­di­tions are get­ting worse

AT­LANTA — Black South­ern­ers and white South­ern­ers are so pro­foundly split on cen­tral ques­tions of equal­ity and op­por­tu­nity that the only thing they seem to share is ge­og­ra­phy, a new poll of the South sug­gests.

The Winthrop Univer­sity poll of the 11 states of the Old Con­fed­er­acy, re­leased last week, finds some com­mon ground be­tween the races on cer­tain is­sues. But 61 per­cent of white peo­ple in the sur­vey

be­lieve all Amer­i­cans have an equal chance to suc­ceed if they work equally hard. Only 33 per­cent of black peo­ple sur­veyed feel that way.

Like­wise, 60 per­cent of black South­ern­ers be­lieve strongly the legacy of slav­ery and dis­crim­i­na­tion con­tin­ues to hold black peo­ple back. But only 19 per­cent of white South­ern­ers share that strong con­vic­tion.

“I came from a mod­est back­ground and built some­thing be­cause I stuck with it and took some risks,” said Lyza

Sand­gren, a white busi­ness owner in Suwa­nee, Ga. “That is avail­able to every­one in this coun­try. Does every­one have the same abil­ity to suc­ceed on the same level? Of course not. The only av­enues that any of us have are ed­u­ca­tion, hard work and the will­ing­ness to take a few risks. No­body’s go­ing to do it for us. On that level, I say that every­one in the United States has an equal chance to suc­ceed.”

Sand­gren said she finds the poll re­sults un­per­sua­sive.

“To any­one who in these polls says, whites think this, blacks think that: I don’t care. I lis­ten to the per­son, not the race,” she said.

Court­ney Spencer, an African-Amer­i­can res­i­dent of Pauld­ing County, Ga., ar­gues the deck has been stacked against black peo­ple since the ear­li­est days of colo­nial Amer­ica.

“Dur­ing slav­ery you have the slave own­ers, who ac­tu­ally cre­ated wealth off of the ones that they put into slav­ery,” said Spencer, who works in the pest con­trol busi­ness in Hi­ram. “So, ba­si­cally that wealth trick­led down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion. But when black peo­ple fi­nally got their free­dom, they were al­ready hun­dreds and hun­dreds of years be­hind. They’re hav­ing to play catch-up, and it’s hard to play catch-up be­cause there are peo­ple who don’t want them to.”

The key to racial un­der­stand­ing? “I re­ally think progress can only come from un­com­fort­able con­ver­sa­tions,” Spencer said. “There are a lot of peo­ple, re­gard­less of race, who don’t want to talk about race. They’d rather be silent about it and hope it will go away. But it never does.”

AT­TI­TUDES HARD­EN­ING

The poll comes as the South is strug­gling with a va­ri­ety of is­sues, from what to do with Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments to the resur­gence of white su­prem­a­cists — and the peo­ple who op­pose them — to re­newed cul­ture wars. It also comes near the end of the first year of the Trump pres­i­dency, which many be­lieve has ex­ac­er­bated racial ten­sions and fur­ther po­lar­ized the na­tion.

In­ter­est­ingly, blacks and whites in the poll were in gen­eral agree­ment that the coun­try is mov­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion. They also gave the econ­omy rea­son­ably good marks. But when it comes to the fu­ture, the wedge re­turns: 63 per­cent of whites be­lieve eco­nomic con­di­tions are get­ting bet­ter; 63 per­cent of blacks be­lieve they’re get­ting worse.

The elec­tion of Don­ald Trump may have much to do with those po­lar­ized views, said Emory Univer­sity po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Andra Gille­spie.

“Last year, be­fore the elec­tion, would whites have felt as san­guine about the econ­omy, par­tic­u­larly when the mes­sage com­ing from the Trump cam­paign was that the econ­omy was in bad shape?” Gille­spie said.

Racially dif­fer­ing views about the econ­omy have been re­vealed in other polls since Trump took of­fice, said Scott Huff­mon, the Winthrop Univer­sity pro­fes­sor who ad­min­is­tered the lat­est Winthrop poll.

In the other polls, among whites, “there was a mag­i­cal overnight swing af­ter Trump was elected, that the econ­omy was much bet­ter than when Obama was pres­i­dent,” Huff­mon said.

But Wil­liam Boone, a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at Clark At­lanta Univer­sity, said the poll re­sults might not hinge com­pletely on the elec­tion re­sults them­selves.

“Is this hap­pen­ing be­cause of the Trump ef­fect, or were things present long be­fore Trump but we are see­ing them flare up now?” Boone said.

He pointed to the poll ques­tion of whether peo­ple can get ahead, re­gard­less of race, if they work hard. Sixty-one per­cent of whites said every­one has an equal chance at suc­cess, while only 33 per­cent of AfricanAmer­i­cans felt that way. Boone said the legacy of le­gal dis­crim­i­na­tion against AfricanAmer­i­cans and sub­se­quent af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion poli­cies have af­fected the way blacks and whites today view their chances in the work­place and in the econ­omy.

“If you look at the poli­cies of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, those poli­cies were in har­mony with the coun­try’s mores at the time; school seg­re­ga­tion, hous­ing seg­re­ga­tion, em­ploy­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion,” Boone said. “Those things have driven us to where we are today. Now, blacks may ar­gue that af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion poli­cies are still try­ing to cor­rect the lin­ger­ing ef­fect of those poli­cies, but whites may feel, ‘Well, the gov­ern­ment is giv­ing them special treat­ment.’ But that viewpoint is ab­sent historical con­text.”

SOME AGREE­MENT

De­spite these dis­crep­an­cies, blacks and whites in the poll over­whelm­ingly agreed “all races should be treated equally” and that “peo­ple of dif­fer­ent races should be free to live wher­ever they choose.”

An­other area where blacks and whites ap­peared to agree was whether “po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness threat­ens our lib­erty as Amer­i­cans to speak our minds.” Ma­jori­ties of both races agreed with that state­ment. Huff­mon said it was pos­si­ble that some AfricanAmer­i­cans who vote Demo­cratic but are so­cially con­ser­va­tive on is­sues such as gay mar­riage and trans­gen­der rights may have feel­ings sim­i­lar to white Repub­li­cans who are also con­ser­va­tive on sim­i­lar so­cial is­sues.

Whether blacks and whites can find mid­dle ground on the other con­tentious is­sues may not be re­solved by this gen­er­a­tion or even the next, said LaKeyta Bon­nette, a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at Georgia State Univer­sity.

She showed a clip in one of her classes of a “Satur­day Night Live” sketch where Tom Hanks por­trays a white Trump voter and lone white con­tes­tant on an episode of “Black Jeop­ardy.” In it, the con­tes­tants find com­mon ground on is­sues such as mis­trust of gov­ern­ment, the econ­omy and even body type. But things be­gin to break down when the cat­e­gory turns to Black Lives Mat­ter.

“That episode is a per­fect ex­am­ple of the di­vide,” Bon­nette said. “Race is go­ing to be di­vi­sive.”

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