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Pew poll: Being Black is central to sense of identity for most Black Americans

Overall, 76% of Black adults say that being Black is extremely (54%) or very (22%) important to how they think about themselves. Majorities across demographic and political subsets of the Black population feel this way.

“Whether Black people were born in the United States or outside of it, whether Black people identified as Black alone, Hispanic, or multiracial in addition to being Black, or whether they were younger or older… across all of those intersections, the idea that being Black was very or extremely important to how Black Americans view themselves, that was a very consistent finding for us,” said Kiana Cox, a research associate at the Pew Research Center and an author of the report.

Although majorities across subsets of the Black population consider being Black central to their identity, there is some variation. Among those who are Black and do not have Hispanic heritage, 78% consider being Black deeply important to their identity, dropping to 58% among Black people with Hispanic heritage and 57% among people who are Black and multiracial. Black women (80%) are more likely to consider their Blackness important to identity than Black men (72%), and older Black adults are more likely than younger generations to say that being Black is extremely or very important to how they think about themselves (63% among those ages 18 to 29, compared with 76% among 30- to 49-year-olds, 80% among those ages 50 to 64 and 83% among those ages 65 or older). There’s also a partisan divide, with Black Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (82%) more likely to see Black identity as central than are Black Republicans and Republican-leaners (58%).

Asked more generally about the importance of racial background, 71% of Black adults called it extremely or very important to their identity, compared with just 32% who said the same among all adults. Black adults are also considerably more apt than the overall public to say that their ancestry, gender, sexuality and religion are deeply important to their identity. Among the general public, the only attribute out of eight tested to be considered deeply important to identity by a majority was “the country where you were born” (55% felt that way), whereas a majority of Black adults also rated ancestry (65%), gender (65%), religion (59%), sexuality (58%) and “the location where you currently live” (52%) at that level of importance.

Those who hold their Blackness as central to identity are more likely than other Black adults to see commonalities with different subgroups of the Black population, and to see what happens to Black people in their communities, throughout the US, and around the world as affecting them personally.

All told, 52% of Black adults said that most or all things that happen to Black people in the United States affect what happens in their own lives, while about 4 in 10 said the same about what happens to Black people in their local community (43%) or around the world (41%). Those who said being Black was extremely or very important to their identity were far more likely than those who considered it less important to feel personally affected by things that happen to Black people in the US (62% vs. 21%), in their community (50% vs. 17%) and around the world (48% vs. 18%).

Asked to rate how much they have in common with different subsets of the Black community, 54% of Black Americans say they have everything or most things in common with Black people born in the United States, while just 17% feel the same about Black people born outside the US. More feel significant commonalities with Black people who are poor (34%) than with those who are wealthy (12%), and just 14% feel they have everything or most things in common with Black people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.

One thing that stood out to Cox in the poll, she said, was “the resiliency of the family as a source of information for both personal history and racial history.” Nearly 80% of Black Americans say they’ve spoken to relatives to learn about their family history, far exceeding the share who’d tried to learn more through online research (34%) or by using a mail-in DNA service (15%).

About half of Black adults say they consider themselves extremely or very informed about the history of Black people in the United States (51%), with another 37% saying they are somewhat informed and just 11% saying they feel less informed than that about Black history. Those who feel at least a little bit informed are more likely to say they learned most of what they know from family and friends (43%) than from media (30%), the internet (27%), their K-12 school (23%) or their college or university, if they attended one (24%).

Nearly 6 in 10 Black adults in the US say that their ancestors were enslaved either in America or in another country (57%), but 34% say they are not sure whether any of their ancestors were enslaved.

The Pew Research Center survey was conducted online October 4-17 among a randomly selected sample of 6,513 adults drawn from panels originally recruited using probability-based methods, including a sample of 3,912 Black adults. Results among Black adults have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points; the error margin is larger for subgroups.

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