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.
The level of trust in the federal government is in sharp contrast to trust in state and local governments. As political scientist Shayla Nunnally shows in her recent book Trust in Black America: Race, Discrimination and Politics, blacks are the least likely to trust their “local” governments, compared with all other racial and economic groups, while “whites trust local government more than blacks do.” This might be explained partly by aggressive police surveillance of black communities—a local government function with direct consequences like the controversial NYPD “stop and frisk” policy (more than 684,000 were recorded in 2011 alone)—or by the history of local and state governments’ denial of and resistance to blacks’ civil and human rights. White Americans are the opposite; they are most likely to trust their local government strongly over the federal.
In addition, the mantra of “states’ rights” has been used throughout history to protect white racial advantages, from slavery to Jim Crow to segregated public schools. But whether it’s resentment at the idea of being “dependent” on the national government, or some kind of cognitive dissonance, there continues to be a gap between expressed belief and action. More recently, we see evidence of expressed hostility to the federal government combined with the increasing use of the federal social safety net in the reddest (whitest) parts of the country. Because of the increase in inequality combined with the Great Recession of the past four years, poor, working-class and middle-class whites, in particular, have had to rely increasingly on food stamps, unemployment benefits, the Earned-Income Tax Credit, Medicare and Medicaid, and Social Security.
Social scientists have long known that people hold bundles of conflicting beliefs and opinions with a large disconnect between what they say or believe and their actual actions. So we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that there is a similar gap between what Americans think about the federal government and how they actually interact with it. Political scientists Larry Jacobs and Ben Page describe Americans’ contradictory beliefs as “philosophically conservative, operationally liberal.” That is, when asked in the abstract about it, Americans (whites in particular) tend to be especially skeptical of the federal government. Yet when asked about specific policies or spending that fosters economic opportunity or security, majorities are supportive—what Jacobs and Page call “conservative egalitarians.” The exception is policies targeting racial inequality, leading to huge differences in support between whites, who have always been hostile to such efforts, and blacks, who have long supported race-targeted policies.
What’s clear is that the role of the Reconstruction-era and post–World War II federal government as the primary instrument for advancing racial justice has fostered greater trust among black Americans—more than any other group in society. Yet the irony is that the government arguably has been an agent of greater racial inequality over the past thirty years. Nonetheless, black collective memory is long, and it’s no coincidence that there is higher African-American trust in government in an era when blacks should probably have the lowest levels. In the Obama era, we have a brief political window to reintroduce all Americans to a positive role and scope of government to provide economic security and advance racial equality and social justice.