Survey On Black Life Prompts Frank Talk: Network poll probes attitudes on family

African Americans believe racism and the effects of slavery continue to affect their communities. But they are also critical of their own failings, a recent look at contemporary black life revealed.

The poll of 724 blacks by BET.com — the interactive arm of Black Entertainment Television — and CBS News queried blacks on a number of issues, from educational aspirations to the hip-hop culture. Some results, BET.com officials said, were surprisingly frank.

For example, a majority of those surveyed were harshly critical that black men as a group “have failed their families,” while 31 percent attributed the absence of black fathers in their children’s lives to “irresponsibility” or a lack of interest.

“We were asking black people what’s going on,” said Retha Hill, vice president for content development at BET.com. “Because BET was asking the questions, people were very candid.”

The poll kicked off “Under One Roof,” a yearlong look at the African American family on BET.com, a news and community Web site, and BET Nightly News, which airs Tuesdays at 11 p.m.

The project was partly funded by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism.

Conducted during two weeks in September, the poll has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.

Not surprisingly, 58 percent of black men queried said they had been stopped by police because of their race. Racial profiling of black and Latino men has been widely publicized.

About 85 percent believed slavery continued to affect their lives, and 62 percent said black Americans were owed an apology from the government.

That race still affects African Americans doesn’t surprise Carolyn Wilson, 58, a legal secretary who lives in Vallejo.

“The attitude has not changed,” said Wilson, who is African American. “I’ve always been under the general impression that people cannot look past the color of someone’s skin, and that continues today.”

Blacks polled also had strong educational aspirations for their children — 61 percent said they wanted their youngsters to get graduate degrees.

“Education’s the key,” Wilson agreed. “It’s just a matter of getting some of these kids there.”

A large majority — 68 percent — also felt blacks placed “too much” importance on material goods.

“There’s always been a debate in black communities about consuming or ‘wearing’ their wealth,” said Hill. “That is, too much emphasis on cars, the expensive athletic shoes, the bling-bling thing,” hip-hop slang for ritzy or monied.

Darrin Thurman, 35, an insurance clerk who is African American and lives in Oakland, conceded that consuming was “something we strive for, this materialistic thing to kind of make us feel like we have achieved the American dream.”

In fact, African Americans do not buy consumer goods in pace with other ethnic groups but use disposable income to help family members, said Hill, noting that 36 percent of respondents cited money as the biggest problem facing their family.

Nearly half — 48 percent — also saw hip-hop, rap music and rap culture as having a “mostly negative influence” on young African Americans, although this reflected a generation gap.

While only 28 percent of blacks between 18 to 29 years old viewed rap and hip-hop as negative, 55 percent of those 30 to 44 years of age did, with that percentage increasing as respondents got older.

“Give me the blues or jazz, but keep in mind, you’re talking to an old man, ” said Terry Jones, 59, a sociologist at California State University at Hayward.

But Stanford University junior Jasmine Johnson, 20, said a large part of hip-hop culture isn’t offensive.

“People who listen to hip-hop/rap make distinctions within that culture,” she said.

Hill was most surprised by what she called the “resentment against black men” and black fathers.

“What our poll is saying is that most African Americans saw the Million Man March as a positive thing spiritually,” Hill said. “But when it comes to practicality, they don’t see a good number of black men reconnected to their families.”

Most critical were women, the low-income and younger blacks. For example, of those who were 18 to 29 years old, 41 percent cited irresponsibility as the reason why black fathers were absent.

Thurman found the poll results “pretty harsh. I have to disagree with that. I’m sure there’s more to it than just walking out and not being there for the kids.”

Hill called the findings a “typical American response. Most Americans tend to look at it as an individual choice.”

Jones disputed that interpretation, saying, “It’s because we’re living in white America. Blacks aren’t immune to being brainwashed or adapting the attitude of white people.”

While he doesn’t defend absent fathers, Jones said the root cause was inequality.

“Blacks and poor people have systematically been excluded from participation in the economy and society,” he said. “So how in hell can you provide adequately for your family?”

Queried about the importance of marriage compared to 20 years ago, 44 percent said it was less important, 22 percent said it was more important, and 31 percent didn’t see any change.

Asked about having children outside of marriage, 45 percent said it was “OK,

some of the time,” although 39 percent said it was “always wrong.”

While some sociologists said the findings reflected a national trend, they were also troubled because blacks are more likely to suffer economic consequences.

“Marriage patterns are changing for everyone in America,” said Gibbs. “That said, children have a far better outcome with two parents. And since the average income of African Americans is already lower (than whites), anything that impacts on that family income will make it more difficult for black families to have the basics.”

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