The shifting political views of African-Americans
About this blog: For decades – from the 1950s through the 1970s – blacks were among the most liberal Americans, far more liberal than whites on most issues. But a shift began in the 1980s as African Americans moved toward the center. In her book, “What’s Going On? Political Incorporation and the Transformation of Black Public Opinion,” recently released by Georgetown University Press, Katherine Tate delves into the trend. She discovers that African Americans have continued to moderate their views, as they have become more affluent and have elected more blacks to political office. Here, Tate, a professor of political science and African American studies at the University of California at Irvine, describes how growing political clout has prompted African Americans to take on more mainstream views.
Political surveys of Americans from the 1970s to the 2000s find that blacks are less strongly liberal than they used to be. Fewer blacks today favor increasing government spending on welfare assistance programs.
A national survey of African Americans conducted in 1996 found that about 60 percent of blacks favored welfare reform, or limiting financial assistance to poor families for a maximum of five years. Also, fewer blacks today feel that the government should enact programs to assist blacks and other minorities. Blacks’ favorable opinion of government assistance for minorities and blacks, measured on a seven-point scale, slid from 6.1 in 1970 to 4.7 in 2004, according to the University of Michigan's American National Election Studies.
Thus, there is less support in the black community for a government-sponsored, targeted approach to racial inequality. Meanwhile, support for school vouchers has increased.
These are important transformations of black opinion, even as white opinions on these key measures have remained mostly stable. Most African Americans remain liberal, however, and continue to approve of affirmative action programs.
But the steady growth of black officials elected to national office is pushing black opinion to the center. The number of blacks serving in Congress will increase to 43 (including the non-voting D.C. delegate) as a result of the 2010 elections. The 112th Congress will have two new black Republicans serving in the House.
African Americans tend to look to the Democratic Party for policy leadership rather than to civil rights groups, as was historically the norm. The Democratic Party is not as radical as civil rights groups have been on issues blacks care about such as unemployment, poverty and educational opportunities. While radical blacks still believe inequality is rooted in institutional discrimination and favor race-oriented policy solutions, the Democratic Party supports a race-neutral, issue-oriented approach.
President Obama, whom some categorize as far left of center, will help continue this trend in black public opinion. The Democratic Party’s economic agenda is fairly moderate, backing tax cuts for middle class voters, which can come at the expense of assistance programs for the poor.
Thirteen black House members, or 34 percent of the Congressional Black Caucus, voted to adopt Obama’s tax compromise which extends the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest, and adds billions to the federal deficit. The Congressional Black Caucus generally opposed the Bush tax cuts. Only David Scott, a black Democratic legislator from Georgia, supported them in 2003.
President Obama also supports the War on Terror and keeping troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, albeit with targeted withdrawal dates. Martin Luther King was an early opponent of the Vietnam War, and blacks were early critics of the Iraq War. Under President Obama, blacks are less critical.
Some of the changes taking place in African American politics are also generational. The generation of those who founded the Congressional Black Caucus, such as former Rep. Ron Dellums (D-CA) and current Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), held idealistic visions of what government could do and ought to do to assist blacks. The younger set, including President Obama, appears more deeply pragmatic.
While the traditional left remains unhappy about the conservative aspects of American public policymaking, surveys show that African Americans are relatively glad. Twice as many blacks surveyed by the Pew Research Center a year after Obama’s election said they thought their situation had improved compared with those polled in a similar survey in 2007.
So President Obama probably won’t be challenged by African Americans on the left the way President Carter was in 1980. We probably won’t see a rainbow rebellion led by a black activist like the Rev. Jesse Jackson as a rebuke to the conservative Democratic Party leadership in 2012. Minority political incorporation is a two-sided process, allowing new groups positions of influence but critically transforming their politics as well.
| December 30, 2010; 1:43 PM ET
Categories: Guest Blogger | Tags: black political opinoin;
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