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What Do We Know About 'African American Lives Today?'


We are going to spend the next part of our broadcast today looking at a new survey on African-American lives. African-American Lives Today is a survey conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation - one of NPR's funders - and the Harvard School of Public Health. It asked questions about how African-Americans feel right now about many aspects of their lives, their finances, their neighborhoods, their health, and their relationships.

Later, we're going to ask a group of people who've been thinking about and writing about these things to join us too. But we're going to start with Matt Thompson. He heads NPR's Code Switch team, which focuses on race, ethnicity, and culture. Welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

MATT THOMPSON, BYLINE: Thank you very much for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: The poll surveyed more than a thousand African-Americans, and I just want to emphasize again it touched on a lot of issues. But I want to start with the whole question of the economy and people's personal finances. A lot of people have been reporting on how the effects of the recession have really hit African-Americans hard. The unemployment rate for black people remains at 13.2 percent, which is nearly twice the rate of whites. So what did the people surveyed say about all this? Did these circumstances find their way into their answers?

THOMPSON: Yeah, so it's interesting. I mean, on the one hand, folks on the whole were pretty optimistic. Nearly nine in 10 said that they were pretty satisfied with their life situation at the moment. That isn't unusual. Folks, when they're polled about their life situation, folks tend to be pretty positive about their happiness with their lives, even if there's other stuff going on in the background, like a recession. But we also asked folks to tell us whether they felt their finances were in excellent states, in good condition, or whether they were not good or poor. And it turns out the poll breaks down almost 50-50 between folks who thought that their finances were all right - excellent or good, and folks who thought that they were not so good or poor. Folks who felt like their finances were not in good condition were less happy with everything from the quality of their air, to the schools their children attended, to their safety from crime.

MARTIN: What about the question of whether people felt that they had been treated negatively because of their race?

THOMPSON: Yeah, so about a third of respondents did feel that they were treated negatively because of their race. But folks in households with income of $75,000 or higher felt about racism pretty differently with folks with lower household incomes. Folks with lower household incomes were less likely to attribute the negative experiences to race. They were likelier to say some other reason. Meanwhile, folks in the upper income brackets were much likelier to say there's racism.

MARTIN: Well, could that be because they are more likely to live integrated existences where they're more likely to come into contact with people of different races than people who are of lower income, who are living in a more segregated space and, therefore, wouldn't necessarily attribute poor treatment to race?

THOMPSON: You know, it could be a number of things, but the funny thing is when we divided that data by the racial makeup of the area in which you live, we didn't actually find a significant disparity.

MARTIN: That's interesting. There were also some interesting findings around health perceptions. Can you talk about that?

THOMPSON: Yeah, so respondents in our poll are likelier than your average general population - average member of the general population to perceive themselves as being overweight. But when you track this with the data about actual weight, they're still underestimating their rates of being overweight or obesity. Men, as you might expect, are slightly likelier than women to perceive themselves as being in about the right weight or in okay health conditions. But high blood pressure, diabetes were listed as some of the highest concerns among respondents to the poll, just as you might expect.

MARTIN: What was the concern that people expressed most often about their lives?

THOMPSON: Crime was the number one thing that we heard, more than any other answer. As a matter fact, things like foreclosure were actually pretty negligible.

MARTIN: But there was also an interesting finding about what services African-Americans felt was missing from their neighborhoods and what they were most concerned about. You think people might say, well, no, there are not enough police officers, there's not enough fire service or something, but that's not what people said. What did they say?

THOMPSON: No. We asked folks to rate every aspect of the area in which they live - their police department, their fire department, grocery stores, and everything, and the thing that folks were harshest about - the things they gave the most negative ratings to were their entertainment venues, like clubs and movie theaters.

MARTIN: And did that track across income?

THOMPSON: Yes, that was not significantly different by income or racial makeup of the place where you live. Folks did not like their entertainment venues.

MARTIN: What are you calling it? The popcorn ...

THOMPSON: We've come to call - calling this the popcorn desert.

MARTIN: The popcorn desert. Not the food desert, but a popcorn desert.


MARTIN: So - and overall, though, there was one finding that really jumped out. What was that?

THOMPSON: So we asked people who were single, so divorced or widowed or never married at all, 18 to 49, whether they were seeking a committed long-term relationship, and it turned out that men were way likelier than women to tell us that they were seeking a committed long-term relationship. The answers about finances may be seeping in here, as well. That when you look at black men and black women, black women at this point are likelier to have a college degree or an advanced degree. And even in the folks we spoke to said that it just might be that they may see less of a financial motive or a stability motive in committing or in seeking a committed relationship at this point.

MARTIN: Or maybe it's a stereotype.

THOMPSON: Or it may...

MARTIN: In fact, maybe people are just wrong, that maybe men are more interested in long-term relationships than people have given them credit for being.

THOMPSON: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Could that be it?

THOMPSON: That could absolutely be it. And we also heard several folks float the idea that maybe they were lying to the pollsters, but...

MARTIN: We'll talk about that some more. Matt Thompson is with NPR's Code Switch team. You can learn more about this poll at NPR.org/codeswitch. Thanks, Matt.

THOMPSON: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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