We might expect black Americans to show more distrust toward government relative to other racial and ethnic groups. Why? Consider just a few trends since the 1980s: persistently high levels of black unemployment, rising to Depression-like numbers in many urban areas during the Great Recession; increasingly punitive criminal justice policies and the disproportionate imprisonment of minority offenders; a reneged government commitment to addressing inequality and poverty, as seen in welfare reform and the declining real value of the minimum wage; and an ongoing failure to provide equal access to high-quality public education, whether K-12 or higher. The federal government has either aided and abetted these trends (the “war on drugs,” mass incarceration) or failed to respond to crises that have ravaged black communities (unemployment, HIV/AIDS, Hurricane Katrina).
Yet it turns out that in the Obama era, blacks have about twice the level of trust in government compared with whites and Latinos. According to a 2010 Pew poll, only two in ten whites “trust the government in Washington to do what is right” either always or most of the time, compared with roughly four in ten blacks. When asked in the same poll whether the “federal government threatens your own personal rights and freedoms,” one in three whites thinks it is a “major threat,” compared with nearly one in four blacks. These racially divergent attitudes extend a much longer trend in which blacks, while not necessarily trusting government more, have tended to invest more hope in it.
What explains African-Americans’ continued belief in the government despite its inconsistency—at best—in recognizing blacks as full citizens? The answer lies partly in the fact that despite a long history of exclusion and neglect, the federal government has provided the most mechanisms for protecting blacks from hostile state and local governments during the high moments of progressive reform—from Reconstruction to the New Deal and Civil Rights movement, to the Great Society. Also, African-Americans have historically sought out public sector jobs, which, as economic geographer Virginia Parks has shown, provide the most stable route into the middle class.
Whether it’s full employment, social protections and services, a decent standard of living or racial equity, African-Americans, despite their conflicting feelings about government, are still significantly more likely to believe that the federal government should play a strong role in tackling these issues. Decades of data surveying blacks and whites about the role and scope of government show persistent differences: blacks are much more likely to believe the federal government is obligated to provide basic services for citizens, provide social protections and economic security and, through intervention, address the country’s major problems—including but not limited to racial inequality. And despite a slight decrease of black support since the 1970s for strong federal government assistance to remedy racial inequality, it’s still one of the most significant racial divides, with whites remaining deeply opposed to so-called “special favors” for black Americans. For example, in a 2009 Pew poll, 58 percent of African-Americans and 53 percent of Hispanics said they “favor preferential treatment to improve the position of blacks and other minorities. Only 22 percent of whites agreed.