Divided America: Minorities hopeful, whites sour on future

Capitol Building

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) – Consider two women in their 70s, both residents of the Kansas City area. One is white and affluent; the other is black and working class.

Guess which one is more optimistic about the country’s future and that of their grandchildren?

More than likely, you guessed wrong.

EDITOR’S NOTE – This is part of Divided America, AP’s ongoing exploration of the economic, social and political divisions in American society.

This year’s presidential campaign has underscored an economic paradox: Financially, black Americans and Hispanics are far worse off than whites, yet polls show minorities are more likely than whites to believe in the American Dream. And they are less anxious about the outcome of the election.

At 71, Carole Ramsey knows she has long been fortunate. She married a man who became a successful lawyer, raised their children in Kansas City’s affluent western suburbs and now enjoys a comfortable retirement full of travel.

“We’ve lived a very good life,” Ramsey, who is white, said at an upscale shopping center in Leawood, Kansas. Even so, she says she’ll vote for Donald Trump because she fears economic stagnation and global terrorism. “Our kids will not be able to live the way we did, that’s for sure.”

Ethel Tuggle, 72, backs Hillary Clinton, and a big reason is that her grandchildren’s circumstances show how life has improved for her family. “They’re starting jobs at $15, $20 an hour; I’ve never seen that sort of money,” said Tuggle, who is black and worked construction for Kansas City government until injuries forced her to retire early.

Tuggle says she’s amazed at the progress she’s witnessed since her childhood in rural Missouri, when she was barred from entering shoe stores and had to trace her foot on a sheet of paper so a salesman inside could fit her for shoes. Her grandchildren live under the nation’s first black president.

One factor in the gap between black optimism and white pessimism is simply partisan politics: Blacks and Hispanics are overwhelmingly Democrats and more likely to feel positive about the future when one of their own is in the White House.

Still, there’s evidence that the divide goes beyond party and Obama’s presidency. Since 2002 – well before Obama’s 2008 election – surveys by the NORC at the University of Chicago have found that whites across all parties and income levels have been less likely to think their standard of living would improve. Blacks and Hispanics, meanwhile, have increasingly believed their living standards would rise.

“This is a racial and ethnic thing – not something that’s based on education, income or party,” said Jennifer Benz of NORC. “It’s whites’ huge decline in optimism that makes the gap between whites and minorities the biggest it’s been in a long time.”

In a June AP-NORC poll, 62 percent of blacks said they thought America’s best days were ahead. Only 40 percent of whites thought so. Fifty-three percent of blacks and 48 percent of Hispanics called the economy “good.” Just 37 percent of whites did.

The optimism among minorities might seem to defy economic realities. Whites have a median household income of $71,300 compared with blacks’ median of $43,300. A report from the Institute for Policy Studies has calculated that, at their current rate, it would take blacks 228 years to catch up with the wealth of whites.

Still, minorities have seen progress, while whites have stalled.

According to Census data, white men have increased their income by only 3 percent since 1973, while black men have improved theirs by 12 percent. (Incomes for women in general have risen sharply since the early 1970s, when they entered the workforce.)

Many Hispanics have enjoyed solid income gains. The Institute for Policy Studies found that Hispanics’ household wealth has risen 69 percent over the past 30 years, albeit to a still-low $98,000 relative to whites’ $656,000.

“If you’re at the bottom moving up, you feel much better about your prospects than if you’re at the top moving down,” Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said.

There is one area where blacks, especially, register as more pessimistic than whites: Race relations and policing. Blacks have polled as more negative about race relations following a series of high-profile police killings of African-Americans. There is frustration, especially among younger blacks, that the incidents have continued under the nation’s first African-American president.

Yet even the demonstrations against those killings since 2014 could be seen as evidence of optimism, said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Atlanta’s Emory University.

“You wouldn’t see people taking to the streets and demanding justice if they didn’t think they had a greater chance of being able to change things,” Gillespie said.

Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, noted that people tend to evaluate their own prospects based on their parents’ experiences.

“When whites look backwards, they compare themselves to a generation that was doing better,” Cherlin said. “Blacks and Hispanics,” who face less overt discrimination today, “compare themselves to a generation that was doing worse.”

Doug Haag lives in Milwaukee. One of the city’s dwindling number of working-class white residents, he feels that the social contract between employers and employees has broken down.

Haag, 59 and a Trump supporter, doesn’t see much job security anymore. He works for the state of Wisconsin, and even though he’s had a steady job the past 18 years he considers himself “lower-middle class,” unable to afford vacations or nights out with friends.

“There’s no middle class any more – the true middle class,” Haag said. “There’s no loyalty from companies any more or from the employees.”