ATLANTA (Reuters) - Many black Americans say the gap between middle- and working-class blacks has grown so wide that it is no longer accurate to describe them as a single race, according to a new report.
The findings challenge a long-held assumption that the experience of blacks in the United States, defined by slavery and segregation in the South as well as the civil rights movement, forged a coherent black identity.
The survey by the non-partisan Pew Research Center showed 61 percent of those polled said the values of middle class and poor blacks had become more different while 31 percent said more similar. The study did not define its terms to respondents.
A related question asked whether blacks “can still be thought of as a single race.” Fifty-three percent said yes while 37 percent said no.
With both questions small percentages declined to respond, saying they did not know or there was no change.
“Diversity means that it doesn’t necessarily make sense to think of blacks as a collectivity,” said Scott Keeter, director of survey research at Pew.
A separate survey on Tuesday said black Americans are failing to climb the social ladder and, in an index of economic insecurity, found that 45 percent born into the middle classes are now poorer than their parents.
Those findings were echoed in the Pew report, in which almost half responded “the same” to a question about whether blacks were better or worse off than five years ago, while 29 percent said worse off and only 20 percent said better off.
“Blacks (are) less upbeat about the state of black progress than at any time since 1983 .... Fewer than half of all blacks (44 percent) say they think life for blacks will get better in the future, down from the 57 percent who said so in a 1986 survey,” said the report.
“Whites ... too have grown less sanguine about black progress (but) they are nearly twice as likely as blacks to see black gains in the past five years,” it said.
The survey also showed a sharp divide in perceptions of discrimination with most blacks rating it a pervasive fact of life against a 2-to-1 majority of whites who said blacks rarely faced it.
In contrast, a majority of blacks said blacks who failed to get ahead were responsible for their own situation.
The survey also rated prominent black Americans according to how favorably they are seen and found a strong preference for “political liberals but cultural conservatives.”
Television talk show host Oprah Winfrey emerged top with 87 percent saying she was a good influence, closely followed by entertainer and activist Bill Cosby who scored 85 percent.
A total of 76 percent rated Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and Bishop T.D. Jakes, pastor of the Potter’s House megachurch in Dallas, as a good influence.
Rapper 50 Cent was at the bottom with just 17 percent saying he was a good influence, reflecting a widespread view held by blacks and whites that rap music was a bad influence.
Rapper Kanye West, however, scored 49 percent, just one percentage point behind Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.
The survey questioned 3,086 adults including an over-sample of 1,007 non-Hispanic black Americans.
Editing by Jim Loney and Bill Trott