An astonishing poll has signaled a new era in American race relations. It appeared just last week but if you read The New York Times or Washington Post you wouldn’t know about it because there was little or no coverage.
As the nation celebrates Martin Luther King’s birthday today the absence of coverage says a lot about people who don’t want things to change when it comes to the old us-versus-them racial politics.
The poll by the respected Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 70 percent of white Americans and 60 percent of black Americans “believe values held by blacks and white have become more similar in the past decade.” Those numbers are unprecedented. Clear majorities of black and white Americans are saying that the divide born or racial, cultural and educational divisions is closing fast. The history of slavery, legal segregation and suspicion that comes with black anger and white guilt is amazingly close to being eclipsed by agreement across racial lines on common values.
And it is not just values that black and white are agreeing on. The poll also found that 65 percent of whites and 56 percent of blacks believe the gap between standards of living for the two races has narrowed over the last ten years. Even as incomes between the races have slightly widened during those ten years there is the feeling among both races that the level of comfort – living standard – is increasingly similar.
And there is more good news about race in the Pew poll.
For example, 39 percent of black Americans in the Pew poll say the “situation for blacks in the U.S.” is better than it was five years earlier. That is nearly twice the 20 percent of blacks who told Pew in a 2007 poll that the racial climate for black people had improved over the prior five years. In this latest poll, a majority of black Americans, 53 percent, also said they expect life in the future to be even better for black people. In the 2007 poll only 41 percent of black Americans expressed such optimism.
And in what I think is the most amazing finding of the new poll 52 percent of blacks said that black people who are not getting ahead today are “responsible for their own situation.” Only one-third of black Americans said racism is keeping down the black poor.
Fifteen years polls found the exact opposite with most black people pointing to racism as the major impediment to black people rising up the ladder of social and economic opportunity in the U.S.
These are major shifts in opinion among black and white Americans but especially among black people. The Pew researchers, whom I consulted with as they did the poll, point to the election of the first black President, Barack Obama, as the spur for this jump in good feeling among black Americans.
There is no doubt that having a black man elected President has shaken the world view of black people. A lot of folks, especially older African Americans who lived through the bad old days of segregation, did not think they would live to see a black man in the White House. The poll finds their attitude on race has become much more upbeat in the past two years and that has contributed to the overall leap in black optimism.
But there is something else going on here. Since the intense years of civil rights activism in the 1950s and 1960s the rates of high school graduation, income and home ownership have all been climbing for black Americans. But despite those decades of change polls did not find any sudden rise in optimism among black people to match what this latest Pew poll has uncovered.
I think I know why.
Black Americans and especially black civil rights leaders did not want to acknowledge the progress being made on the race relations front. Blacks feared that white America — in the form of government, foundations, churches and educational institutions — might point to any admission of racial progress as evidence that there was no more work to be done to heal the damage done to contemporary American life by racism.
But with continued progress for all minorities but especially blacks over the past decades — and the election of a black President – the silencer is off. There is a new confidence among black and whites that values and opportunities now exist in close to equal measure for blacks and whites who get an education and work hard.
Imagine how sky high this optimism might be if the recession had not hit and unemployment was not 10 percent including 16 percent for black people.
These astounding findings in the Pew poll open a different racial discussion in America. In the past, the big news out of polls of the two races predictably showed that white people thought one way and black people thought another. Now here is a poll that finds black and white people finding common ground as never before.
Yet somehow the New York Times and Washington Post did not find space in their news columns to tell this uplifting story.
If there was a charge of racism against a policeman or a politicians uttered some racially insensitive language that surely would have been on the front pages; in fact, just last week Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid ended up on the front pages for just such a racial stumble.
But there was no space for news of new racial attitudes that signal that so much of the bitter feelings and finger-pointing of the past has faded. It is enough to make you think that some newspapers only see racial division as newsworthy.
What would Dr. King say?
Maybe they, like the old race hustlers and racists, think racial progress is not good for business.
Juan Williams is NPR Senior Correspondent and a Fox News contributor.