Poll: In the old Confederacy the racial gap shows no sign of closing

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 that 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 that 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,” says Lyza Sandgren, a white business owner in Suwanee. “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, argues that 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.”

Sandgren and Spencer were not poll respondents. Rather, they are among a group of AJC readers who volunteered earlier this year to speak with the newspaper about race.

Hardening racial attitudes

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 then 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 African-Americans felt that way. Boone said the legacy of legal discrimination against African-Americans 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.”

Another difference in the poll that may reflect the divisive politics of the day: Black people overwhelmingly said that racial minorities are under attack in America today. Half of white respondents agreed with them. But nearly half of whites said it was they who are under attack.

Where blacks and whites agreed

Despite these discrepancies, blacks and whites in the poll overwhelmingly agreed that “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 African-Americans 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 shows 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.”

Staff writer Richard Halicks contributed to this article.

Commenting on this article is being moderated by AJC editors.

About the poll

The Winthrop University Poll was conducted between Oct. 22 and Nov. 5. It surveyed 830 adults from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. The overall margin or error was +/- 3.4 percent for all respondents. Among whites the margin was +/- 4 percent and among African-Americans, +/- 7.7 percent.

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