COLUMBIA, S.C. — President Barack Obama will help America rid itself of racial prejudice, nearly 75 percent of African-American Southerners surveyed said, 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, said respondents in the latest Winthrop University/South Carolina Educational Television poll of the South. The poll surveyed African-Americans in 11 Southern states on issues, values, politics and the new president.
Obama-inspired optimism was tempered, however, 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, S.C., health-care worker who participated in the survey. Wilson thinks that Obama has the "drive in him to move us past that."
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The poll, taken Feb. 6-22, was conducted exclusively among 659 African-Americans, from Texas to Florida and north to Virginia.
A month 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.
Obama's approval ratings nationally hover around 60 percent, a dropoff since he took office on 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, a liberal-arts college in Rock Hill, S.C., 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 real progress has been made since the 1960s in ridding the nation of racial prejudice overall, "that number drops almost 10 points when Deep South respondents looked at progress only in the South," Belk noted.
The poll showed the economy to be the No. 1 issue on the minds of Southern African-Americans, registering about 50 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 Southern 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 those polled said their personal finances are fairly good.
Yet 70 percent of African Americans who live 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, the director of the Winthrop/ETV initiative, and a 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, seven out 10 felt the country was on the right track."
African-American attitudes about race, politics and issues, as compiled in a Winthrop University/ETV poll of Southerners.
_ African Americans in the South give President Barack Obama a 90 percent approval rating. Separate polls of all races give Obama a 60 percent approval rating.
_ Seventy percent of African Americans living in the South think the country is on the right track.
_ Almost all poll respondents — 96 percent — of those polled think the Obama administration will treat both African Americans and whites the same. Slightly more than one-quarter think the poor will be favored over the rich.
ON THE ISSUES
_ Eighty-five percent of Southern African Americans rate the national economy as "very bad" or "fairly bad."
_ The two most important issues facing the United States, say poll respondents, are the economy and unemployment. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, health care, energy and immigration barely registered.
_ Almost 75 percent of the poll's respondents think that Obama's election will open up more opportunities for black Americans and lead to less racial discrimination.
_ A majority of respondents — 52 percent — thinks race relations in the South are better. A majority, however, also thinks that race relations in the South are bad.
_ Attorney General Eric Holder said on Feb. 18 the U.S. is a "nation of cowards" and that "average Americans simply do not talk enough with each other about race." The Winthrop/ETV Poll found an almost even split between those who are and aren't comfortable talking about race with someone of another race. However, almost 58 percent said the 2008 presidential election made it easier to have these kinds of conversations.
_ Less than a third of Southern African-Americans think the Republican Party is working to attract African Americans. The poll was taken days after the GOP elected former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele its first African-American chairman.
_ After a contentious and sometimes ugly primary season, former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have again found favor with Southern African-Americans. Almost 80 percent think Hillary Clinton will project a positive image of America to the world as secretary of state. Additionally, about 87 percent think Obama's decision to appoint some members of President Clinton's administration to his cabinet was a good choice.
(Burris reports for The State in Columbia, S.C.)
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