Poll Shows Racial Division on Obama’s Candidacy
Americans are sharply divided by race heading into the first election in which an African-American will be a major-party presidential nominee, with blacks and whites holding vastly different views of Senator Barack Obama, the state of race relations and how black Americans are treated by society, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.
The results of the poll, conducted against the backdrop of a campaign in which race has been a constant if not always overt issue, suggested that Mr. Obama’s groundbreaking candidacy, while generating high levels of enthusiasm among black voters, is not seen by them as evidence of significant improvement in race relations.
After years of growing political polarization, much of the divide in American politics is partisan. But Americans’ perceptions of the fall presidential election between Mr. Obama and Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, also underlined the racial discord that the poll found. More than 80 percent of black voters said they had a favorable opinion of Mr. Obama; about 30 percent of white voters said they had a favorable opinion of him.
Nearly 60 percent of black respondents said that race relations are generally bad, compared with 34 percent of whites. Four in 10 blacks say that there has been no progress in recent years in eliminating racial discrimination; fewer than 2 in 10 whites say the same thing. And about one-quarter of white respondents said they thought that too much had been made of racial barriers facing black people, while one-half of black respondents said not enough had been made of racial impediments faced by black people.
The survey suggests that even as the nation crosses a racial threshold when it comes to politics — Mr. Obama, a Democrat, is the son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas — many of the racial patterns in society remain unchanged in recent years.
Indeed, the poll showed markedly little change in the racial components of people’s daily lives since 2000, when The Times examined race relations in a series called “How Race Is Lived in America.”
As it was eight years ago, few Americans have regular contact with people of other races, and few say their own workplaces or their own neighborhoods are integrated. In this latest poll, over 40 percent of blacks said they believed they had been stopped by the police because of their race, the same figure as eight years ago; 7 percent of whites said the same thing.
Nearly 70 percent of blacks said they had encountered a specific instance of discrimination based on their race, compared with 62 percent in 2000; 26 percent of whites said they had been the victim of racial discrimination. (More than 50 percent of Hispanic respondents said they had been the victim of racial discrimination.)
And when asked whether blacks or whites had a better chance of getting ahead in today’s society, 64 percent of black respondents said that whites did. That figure was slightly higher even than the 57 percent of blacks who said so in a 2000 poll by The Times. And the number of black respondents who described racial conditions as generally bad in this survey was almost identical to poll responses in 2000 and 1990.
“Basically it’s the same old problem, the desire for power,” Macie Mitchell, a Pennsylvania Democrat from Erie County, who is black, said in a follow-up interview after participating in the poll. “People get so obsessed with power and don’t want to share it. There are people who are not used to blacks being on top.”
White perceptions, by contrast, improved markedly from 1990 to 2000, but have remained steady since. This month’s poll found that 55 percent of whites said race relations were good, almost double the figure for blacks.
The nationwide telephone poll was conducted July 7-14 with 1,796 adults, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. In an effort to measure views of different races, the survey included larger-than-usual minority samples, 297 blacks and 246 Hispanics, with a margin of sampling error of 6 percentage points for each of those subgroups.
Black and white Americans agree that America is ready to elect a black president, but disagree on almost every other question about race in the poll.
Black voters were far more likely than whites to say that Mr. Obama cares about the needs and problems of people like them, and more likely to describe him as patriotic. Whites were more likely than blacks to say that Mr. Obama says what he thinks people want to hear, rather than what he truly believes. And about half of black voters said race relations would get better in an Obama administration, compared with 29 percent of whites.
About 40 percent of blacks said that Mr. McCain, if elected president, would favor whites over blacks should he win the election.
There was even racial dissension over Mr. Obama’s wife, Michelle: She was viewed favorably by 58 percent of black voters, compared with 24 percent of white voters.
Kevin Sack contributed reporting from Atlanta, and Dalia Sussman and Marina Stefan from New York.