Two separate worlds: Black concerns in a racially divided country

The fierce interchange between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden during the second Democratic debate arose from opposing perspectives. Harris called Biden’s stance against busing in 1975 “personally hurtful,” and she wanted him to admit that he had been wrong. She remembered that 20 years after the 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education Supreme Court case had mandated desegregation, her class had been only the second in Berkeley to be bused to a white school, without which she would likely not have gone to law school, become California’s attorney general, and a senator. Shocked by her personal story, Biden wanted viewers to appreciate his strength in working across the aisle, which was the context for his vote against mandatory busing. Though Biden had actually supported a constitutional amendment to bar courts from ordering busing as a remedy for segregation, during his confrontation with Harris he insisted that he had been for “voluntary busing” — which was exactly why, as Harris pointed out, districts had been able to delay desegregation. 

Sixty-five years after Brown, two surveys conducted in May barely touch the ongoing racial inequality in public schooling; instead they  show the obstacles African Americans still face in the economy and the criminal justice systems. They also suggest that, despite the Trump administration’s efforts to undo civil rights protections, black voters still see the federal government as the most effective vehicle for redressing inequities. 

The study, “More Black than Blue: Politics and Power in the 2019 Census,” was conducted by the Black Futures Lab, headed by co-founder of Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garcia, (https://blackcensus.org.) In the largest poll of African Americans since Reconstruction, the Black Futures Lab (BFL) surveyed 38,000 respondents, accessing them through online civil rights organizations, and in person in black businesses, churches, libraries, barbershops and other community gathering places. Another study, “Black Americans’ Views on an Economic Agenda for the Black Community” (www.hartresearch.com), is a much smaller study. Just over a thousand interviews were conducted by the Black Economic Alliance (BEA), half by phone and half online. Despite differences in methods and sample size, the two surveys cover similar ground and enrich each other. 

Low wages are considered a pressing economic problem among African Americans in both surveys. Nine in 10 view wages in their community as too low to sustain a family (BFL).  Nearly two-thirds worry about their income not keeping up with the cost of living, and 45% report that their savings would not last more than four weeks (BEA). 

Black respondents are also keenly aware of how race determines their job and career possibilities. Over 80% say they face discrimination in recruitment, hiring and receiving promotions; that there are not enough jobs with good wages and benefits in black communities; and that they are concerned about the “wage gap” between black and white Americans. Among those who own a business, lack of credit, low credit scores and challenges to obtaining capital are “significant barriers” (BEA).

The high cost of health care, college and housing for African Americans are highlighted by both studies. Between 85% and 90% described health care, college and housing as causes for concern (BFL), while over three-quarters say it is “very important” to make sure everyone has access to affordable health care and college (BFL), and increasing homeownership is considered an “extremely high priority” for 61% (BEA). 

Both surveys support the unfortunate truth that black Americans feel under attack, rather than supported, by the policing and criminal justice systems. More than four out of five are very concerned about the excessive use of force by police officers and police officers killing black people (BFL). Respondents in both surveys are concerned about re-entry for black Americans who have been in prison, and the ability of those with prior convictions to get hired for good jobs and to vote. While voting turnout is exceptionally high among African Americans, of those respondents who did not vote in 2016, 6% said prior felony convictions made them ineligible to vote (BFL).

Because voting laws differ by state, African Americans are mobilizing in several states to enable those with felony convictions to vote in 2020. Nevertheless, the surveys suggest that the federal government is still seen as the most powerful source of equity and redress. Around 90% in both surveys support raising the federal minimum wage, and 90% consider it the federal government’s role to provide health care for all Americans (BFL). Increasing the tax rate for those making $250,000 annually, an important redistributive mechanism, is also favored by over three-fourths of respondents (BFL).  

Finally, though seeing reparations as making little difference to their personal wealth, three-quarters favor a federal policy of reparations for slavery, presumably as an admission of wrongdoing (BEA).


Carol Ascher, who lives in Sharon, has published seven books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as many essays and stories.