Southern blacks: Obama will heal racial rift

President Barack Obama will help America rid itself of racial prejudice, said nearly 75 percent of African American Southerners, an indicator of the high hopes black America has invested in Obama's ability to improve race relations.

Since his election in November, Obama has made talking about race easier, respondents in the latest Winthrop/ETV poll of the South said. The poll surveyed African Americans in 11 Southern states on issues, values, politics and the new president.

But Obama-inspired optimism was tempered by what poll respondents consider to be still poor race relations south of the Mason-Dixon line. More than 50 percent of respondents think race relations in the South are generally bad.

"Race relations are kind of bad in the Deep South," said Monethel Wilson, a Beaufort health care worker who participated in the survey. "... I think that past racial (feelings were) born in (whites), but President Obama has (the) drive in him to move us past that."

The poll, taken Feb. 6-22, was conducted exclusively among 659 African Americans, from Texas to Florida, and north to Virginia.

Thirty days into the Obama administration, southern African-Americans are the president's biggest fans, giving the president a 90 percent approval rating, even as they watch the national economy crumble beneath their feet.

Obama's approval ratings nationally hover around 60 percent, a drop-off since taking office Jan. 20.

"The poll results clearly indicate that southern African Americans are satisfied with President Obama and the way he is handling issues of the day," said Adolphus Belk Jr., director of the African American Studies Program at Winthrop University, and co-designer of the survey.

"But there is something going on with race relations in the South and the nation overall."

While more than 60 percent of southern blacks said a lot of real progress has been made since the 1960s in getting rid of racial prejudice in the United States overall., "That number drops almost 10 points when Deep South respondents looked at progress only in the South," Delk noted.

Bad economy

The poll showed the economy to be the No. 1 issue on the minds of southern African Americans, registering 50 to 52 percent, followed by unemployment and jobs at roughly 20 percent.

No other issue - not the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, energy or the environment - rose above 3.2 percent concern for African Americans in the poll.

About 85 percent said the U.S. economy is in "fairly bad" or "very bad" condition now, and barely half of poll respondents said their personal finances are fairly good.

Yet, 70 percent of African Americans living in the South feel the country is on the right track.

"African Americans are saying they feel the country is on the right track as a result of the election of Barack Obama," said Scott Huffmon, director of the Winthrop/ETV initiative, and also co-designer of the survey.

"On the one hand, concerns about the economy and unemployment were overwhelmingly listed as the most important issues facing our country," Huffmon said. "On the other hand, despite the spiraling economic crisis, 7 out 10 felt the country was on the right track."

Cultural conservatism

Culturally, the poll corroborated what long has been known about southern African Americans: they hold to some values even more conservatively than do their white counterparts.

About 70 percent of Southern blacks rejected sex between adults of the same gender and they split pretty evenly on whether having a child outside of wedlock is acceptable.

More than half said abortion should only be legal under certain circumstances.

Poll respondents also strongly condemned use of the N-word by both African Americans and whites, 72 percent and 85 percent, respectively.

On the political side, Huffmon said some of the poll results show a sliver of an opening for Republicans among southern African Americans.

About one third of respondents said the Republican Party is working to attract African Americans, and 30 percent identified themselves as either "somewhat conservative" or "very conservative."

In South Carolina, a Deep South state, the respondents were more conservative than the South in general.

Rosa Lee, a Camden resident who participated in the poll, discounted any importance attached to those small numbers, however.

"Absolutely not," Lee said. "The attitude of the Republican Party is still one of a people who always have benefited from being on top." "This election is a ... slap to them and they would rather stand in the way than change."

Reach Burris at (803) 771-8398.