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Poll: Black Americans see racism as a persistent challenge, and few say the country’s racial reckoning has brought change

The finding marks a pessimistic turn: In September of 2020, a majority of Black adults (56%) felt the added attention to issues of race and equality following a summer of protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd would lead to changes that improved the lives of Black people.

In the new survey, however, 65% of Black adults say that such changes haven’t materialized. Just 13% see it as extremely or very likely that Black people in the US will achieve equality, with little variation in that figure by age, gender, region or education level.

The survey — which included interviews with more than 3,000 Black Americans nationwide conducted last fall — finds 82% consider racism a major problem for Black people in the US. About 8 in 10 Black Americans report having personally experienced discrimination because of their race or ethnicity (79%) — including 15% who say they experience such discrimination regularly. And roughly 7 in 10 (68%) say racial discrimination is the main reason why many Black people can’t get ahead these days.

“Overall, Black Americans are clear on what they think the problems are facing the country and how to remedy them,” write Kiana Cox and Khadijah Edwards, the report’s authors. “However, they are skeptical that meaningful changes will take place in their lifetime.”

A broad majority (85%) of Black adults say Black people in the US today are significantly affected by the legacy of slavery, and 77% say descendants of people enslaved in the US should be repaid in some way. But just 7% of Black adults see the payment of reparations as very or extremely likely in their own lifetimes. Among the overall US adult population, just 30% favor such reparations.

Racism ranks as the most pressing problem for Black people living in the US out of six issues tested in the survey. Almost two-thirds of Black adults, 63%, say it is an extremely big problem for Black Americans, while 60% say the same of police brutality, 54% of economic inequality, 47% affordability of health care, 46% efforts to limit voting and 40% the quality of K-12 schools.

A narrow majority of Black adults say that racism in the law is a bigger problem than racism by individual people (52%), while 43% feel individual racism is a bigger issue than that built into the law. Opinions are polarized, with 56% of Black Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents saying racism in the law is the bigger issue, while 59% of Black Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say racism by individuals is a bigger problem.

Most Black Americans say that major changes are needed in American institutions to enable Black people to be treated fairly. That sentiment is strongest when it comes to the criminal justice system, where about half or more say the prison system (54%), policing (49%) or courts and the judicial process (48%) need to be completely rebuilt for Black people to receive fair treatment. Fewer feel a complete rebuild is in order for the political system (42%), the economic system (37%) or the health care system (34%), even though most say those systems merit major changes or more. Across each of these areas, few who think changes are needed expect to see them happen in their own lifetime.

Black Democrats and Democratic-leaners are more likely to say that the policing system needs to be rebuilt than Black Republicans and GOP-leaners are to say the same, 52% to 29%. But there’s less of a partisan divide over police funding. A modest 39% plurality of Black adults say funding for police departments in their area should stay about the same, with 35% wanting to see the funding increased, and 23% wanting it to be decreased. Those numbers are close to identical across party lines.

Black Americans see heading to the ballot box as the most effective strategy for helping Black people in the United States move toward equality. All told, 63% call voting an extremely or very effective tactic in the effort to achieve equality for Black Americans, including 43% who say it is extremely effective. Supporting Black businesses is the only other tactic rated as deeply effective by most Black Americans (58% call that extremely or very effective). About half (48%) say it is effective to volunteer with organizations dedicated to Black equality, 42% say the same about protesting and 40% about contacting elected officials.

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But the survey finds broad differences by age when it comes to views on voting. Overall, only about half of Black adults younger than 30 say that voting is an extremely or very effective path toward equality, compared with 77% of Black adults age 65 or older. There is also a sharp drop-off between older and younger Black adults in the level of concern they express about efforts to limit voting. While 61% of Black Americans age 65 or older say those efforts are an extremely big problem, that drops to just 32% among those younger than 30. Age differences are less pronounced across the other issues and political actions tested in the survey.

A plurality (39%) of Black Americans overall choose Black Lives Matter as the organization they feel has done the most to help Black people recently, topping the NAACP (17%), Black churches or other religious organizations (13%), the Congressional Black Caucus (6%) and the National Urban League (3%). Another 14% named another organization not included in the question.

About three in 10 Black Americans say that establishing a national Black political party would be an effective strategy for helping Black people move toward equality in the US, while slightly fewer see it as effective to have all Black officials governing Black neighborhoods. About 4 in 10 say all businesses in Black neighborhoods being Black-owned would be an effective way to improve equality for Black Americans.

The Pew Research Center surveyed a random national sample of 3,912 Black Americans online from Oct. 4-17, 2021. The sample was drawn from probability-based panels, and the results for the full sample of Black adults have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points. It is larger for subgroups.

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