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The Complexities of Race and Identity

A new survey from the Pew Research Center explores how Black Americans think of themselves

September 20, 2022 By: Charles E. Cobb Jr. Read time:

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The Complexities of Race and Identity

It’s not often that Black Americans are asked with any degree of thoughtfulness what they think of themselves—their nuanced attitudes and beliefs—or how and what they think of Black identity. But at a time when the nation’s racial consciousness has been raised, the Pew Research Center conducted an in-depth online survey of nearly 4,000 Black adults in October 2021. Among the findings: A large majority of Black Americans say that being Black is extremely or very important to how they think of themselves. Black adults who say being Black is important to their sense of self are more likely to feel connected to groups of Black people, in and outside of the United States, than those who don’t feel this way. And one-third of Black adults have used multiple methods to research their family history. The resulting report, “Race Is Central to Identity for Black Americans and Affects How They Connect With Each Other,” was released in April.

Geography, political opinion, education, and religious belief or nonbelief as well as age and income all have historically affected attitudes about identity within the Black community. The report reflects the Center’s new strategy of “putting Black people first” in racial research, says Mark Hugo Lopez, director of race and ethnicity research at the Center, by exploring different angles of how Black Americans view themselves, their communities, and Black history, rather than starting with a comparison to other Americans on the same measures. The overall work was shaped by three themes: identity, mobility, and representation.   

Overall, a total of 76% of Black adults say that being Black is “extremely important” (54%) or “very important” (22%) to how they think about themselves.

Demonstrators raise their fists in protest after the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by a White Minneapolis police officer. The protesters gathered at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Brooklyn, New York, on June 5, 2020.
Angela Weiss AFP via Getty Images

“We try and figure out where different populations are clustered,” explains Kiana Cox, a research associate at the Center and one of the report’s authors. The survey underscored that the Black community is not monolithic and that economic status plays a role in attitudes, so participants were divided into three income categories: lower ($42,000 or less), middle ($42,000-$125,000), and upper ($125,000 or more), which correlated to 46%, 39%, and 9% of respondents, respectively. Among Black lower-income respondents, 6 in 10 say they have few things or nothing in common with Blacks who are wealthy. This attitude and divide between haves and have-nots may startle those who might have expected a racial unity that transcends income differences but would not surprise many people in the world’s developing nations of Africa, Asia, or Latin America. Adding a further twist: The report also found that “Black adults who live in urban areas (54%) are more likely than those living in rural (46%) or suburban (48%) areas to say that they have few things or nothing in common with Black people who are wealthy.”

The responses reflect the great diversity of the Black American community—and also offer a window onto the connectedness among Black American adults. If for no other reason than survival, race has always driven a kind of Black solidarity in the United States. A look at the Black American struggle for full citizenship and civil rights, from the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 as lynching surged, especially in the South, to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in July 2013 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, goes a long way toward explaining this solidarity. Overall, a total of 76% of Black adults say that being Black is “extremely important” (54%) or “very important” (22%) to how they think about themselves, with majorities across demographic and political subsets of the Black population saying they feel this way. The overall percentage drops to 58% among Black people with Hispanic heritage and 57% among people who are Black and multiracial.

Youth attend a candlelight vigil for Trayvon Martin a month after the teenager’s death a decade ago outside the community in Sanford, Florida, where he was shot and killed by George Zimmerman.
Mario Tama Getty Images

Lopez says that an important shift in the approach to understanding the diversity of Black people in this survey of Black identity is that it includes Black Hispanics, Black immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa, and those who are multiracial. He explains that within the Center there has been an ongoing discussion about how to measure and report different concepts of race for years. “There was a lot of interest from Center staff in doing more to understand the diversity and nuances of the nation’s various populations,” which would of course include the U.S. Black population, Lopez says. Throughout, the report uses “Black Americans,” “Black people,” and “Black adults” interchangeably to refer to those who self-identify as Black regardless of ethnicity. The terms “immigrant” and “foreign-born” are used interchangeably to refer to Black people who were born outside the U.S. The sample used for this study is much larger than usual—3,912 adults, says Lopez. “Our work was designed to tell the stories of different age groups, of different education groups, by income, immigrant status, and groupings like Black Hispanics, multiracial non-Hispanic Blacks, single-race non-Hispanic Blacks, and others; we wanted to tell stories of the many different parts of the Black population,” he says.

This report on Black Americans and identity is the latest in a series of reports from the Center looking at the lives of Black Americans. The first, “Faith Among Black Americans,” was released in February 2021 and studied religious practices and beliefs. Two more reports are in the works: one looking at Black Americans and politics and the other analyzing how race, gender, and sexuality interact and affect identity in unique ways.

Relatives comfort 81-year-old veteran James Bowlding, who had recently lost his wife, at the family’s 30th reunion in Maryland in the early 2000s. The Center survey found that 81% of those who say that Blackness is important to them said they have spoken to relatives about family history.
Ed Kashi VII via Redux

It may be surprising, at least to this writer, that—in today’s era of intense and widely supported young Black political activism—the share of Black adults under 30 who say that Blackness is an extremely or very important part of their personal identity is only 63%, as compared with 76% among 30- to 49-year-olds and roughly 80% among those over 50. Less surprising, perhaps, is a partisan divide: Black Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are more likely (82%) to see Black identity as central to how they view themselves than are Black Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58%). One question that emerges, Lopez says, is whether racial desegregation—accompanied by greater integration and opportunity, other racial changes, and especially a larger political presence—has led, in addition to an expanded Black middle class, to a more homogenous U.S. culture, with the result that the nature of Black identity may be changing.

The specificity found in the identity report brings to mind, although not an exact comparison, the four broad general Black categories that journalist Eugene Robinson made more than a decade ago in his book Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America, describing how Black communities have changed—or, perhaps more accurately, expanded—as a result both of the post-World War II civil rights movement and of a natural evolution of society as it matures. Robinson’s general categories are: a mainstream middle-class majority with a full ownership stake in American society; a large, abandoned minority with less hope of escaping poverty and dysfunction than at any time since Reconstruction’s crushing end in the 19th century; a small transcendent elite with enormous wealth, power, and influence that eclipses that of most Whites; and a fourth category made up of two newly emergent groups—individuals of multiracial heritage and communities of recent Black immigrants—that turn upside down old definitions of what it means to be Black.

The U.S. flag flies at the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Memorial Day weekend 2022. In the background, wearing yellow, are members of the Buffalo Soldiers. The Black motorcycle club, named for the famed Civil War Army regiment of Black soldiers, traveled from across the country to honor people of color who have died in battle.
Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post via Getty Images

“These four black Americas are increasingly distinct, separated by demography, geography, and psychology,” Robinson wrote in his 2010 book. “They have different profiles, different mind-sets, different hopes, fears, and dreams.” Any discussion of Black identity today must factor in this post-civil rights movement evolution; the Center’s report helps illustrate this.

Important issues to Black Americans are not always uniquely or clearly racial; many are shared with U.S. society as a whole. When the survey asked about the most important issue facing their community, Black Americans named violence and crime as the largest areas of concern (17%), followed by economic issues such as poverty and homelessness (11%). Other points of concern were housing (7%), COVID-19 and public health (6%), or infrastructure issues such as the availability of public transportation and the conditions of roads (5%). Touchpoints on safety and personal identity can shift with current events.

Even before the shooting that killed 10 Black people at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket earlier this year, the broad issue of gun violence—which to me includes domestic and gang violence, suicide, drive-bys, and the growing number of mass shootings—worried many in Black America and was an issue much broader than Black identity. According to a separate survey about U.S. gun policies undertaken by the Center in April 2021, 8 in 10 Black adults believed, as did a majority of the general public (48%), that gun violence is a significant problem in the United States. But more specifically to the Black population, anti-Black hate violence—an old concern going back to the days of slavery and the Ku Klux Klan, and today the White supremacist hate being encouraged by nativist politicians—is central to how Blacks think of their place in America. More than a third (35%) of the 8,263 criminal incidents identified in the FBI’s hate crimes report for 2020 involved anti-Black or African American bias, even though Black people account for about 12% of the U.S. population, according to recent research from the Center. And because many hate crimes do not get reported to the police, these FBI statistics may be an undercount. 

About 5 in 10 Black Americans (52%) say that “everything or most things that happen to Black people in the United States” affect what happens in their own lives, while another 30% say that some things that happen nationally to Black people have a personal impact on them.

To better understand how this information can weigh on Black Americans, the Black identity report found that about 5 in 10 Black Americans (52%) say that “everything or most things that happen to Black people in the United States” affect what happens in their own lives, while another 30% say that some things that happen nationally to Black people have a personal impact on them. 

Black identity significantly affects how connected Black Americans feel to their ancestral histories. Most Black adults (57%) say their ancestors were enslaved, either in the U.S. or another country. Of the Black adults who say that Blackness is “very” or “extremely” important to them, about 60% know that their ancestors were enslaved. Those who say that Blackness is somewhat, a little, or not at all important to them are less likely to know this (45%). Furthermore, 81% of those who say that Blackness is important to them said they have spoken to relatives about family history. Among those for whom Blackness is less important, a smaller share learned about their family histories from their relatives (59%). In addition, 1 in 3 Black adults overall say they had used two or more methods—talking to relatives, conducting online research, or using mail-in DNA services—to research their family history.

More than 250,000 people gathered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963, where Martin Luther King Jr. would give his “I Have a Dream” speech. The Center’s survey found that although 60% of adults age 65 and over say they feel extremely or very informed about Black history, just 38% of 18- to 29-year-olds feel the same.
Archive Photos Getty Images

The report also revealed significant age differences in awareness and sources of information related to Black history. Although 60% of adults age 65 and over say they feel extremely or very informed about Black history, just 38% of 18- to 29-year-olds feel the same. And 40% of this younger age group say they’re not even sure if their ancestors were enslaved. This leapt out at me as a 79-year-old African American, because stories of slavery in my family were a routine part of my childhood and certainly contributed to my deep involvement with the 1960s Southern civil rights movement.

Even considering the massive amount of illuminating data in the Center’s study, it remains true that much of the current flowing through Black life and identity is not easily visible. Courtland Cox, one of the 1960s leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the current chair of the SNCC Legacy Project, recently told me that to understand Black identity we must “think of people living in a house. The dynamic of their interactions is not going to be the same outside of the house. There are a set of things that you have to react to coming from both inside and outside. It means you have to understand who and what they are inside and outside of the house. The complete picture of them is a human picture. Key to understanding Black identity is understanding Blacks as human beings—their humanity.”

Elaborating on and deepening Cox’s metaphor of house, family, and identity, Derrick Johnson, the president and CEO of the NAACP, says, “Blackness is cultural space used to define power and Blacks in Black space. But the center of gravity has shifted. The beautiful gumbo, Black cultural gumbo of our experiences is everything; it evolves.”

Charles E. Cobb Jr. is a founding member of the National Association of Black Journalists and a veteran of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. His latest book is This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible.

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