The survey by the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based research organization, paints a mixed picture of race relations following Hurricane Katrina and the Jena Six case, in which six black teens were charged with beating a white student at a high school in the town of Jena, La.
It found that just one in five blacks, or 20 percent, said things were better off for blacks compared with five years ago; that is the smallest percentage since 1983, when 20 percent also made that claim. In-between, the percentage of blacks who said things had gotten better had grown, only to drop back to 20 percent.
Another 29 percent of blacks said things had gotten worse as opposed to staying the same, the largest number since 32 percent made that claim in 1990.
In addition, fewer than half of all blacks, or 44 percent, said they expected their prospects to brighten in the future. That's down from 57 percent in 1986, during the height of the Reagan administration when the Justice Department actively sought to curtail affirmative action in favor of race-neutral policies.
Whites have a different view about black progress, according to the survey. Whites were nearly twice as likely as blacks to see black gains in the past five years. A majority of whites polled, or 56 percent, also said they believed prospects for blacks would improve in the future.
"As disturbing as these findings are, in one sense it's surprising they are not actually worse," said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of 200 groups including the NAACP and National Urban League. "Most African Americans believe the government response to problems is one of benign neglect rather than forceful action."
Since the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision more than 50 years ago that outlawed segregation in public schools, blacks have seen substantial civil rights gains including the passage of laws in the 1960s and 1970s that sought, in part, to deter discrimination in housing and employment.
Decades later, blacks and whites are now at a crossroads, with the nation and even the black community itself divided over the best approach to achieve racial equality, whether by affirmative action to foster integration or more race-neutral policies to promote ideals of a colorblind society.
Moreover, the income gap between black and white families has not narrowed, according to a new study being released Tuesday that tracked the incomes of some 2,300 families for more than 30 years. Incomes have increased among both black and white families in the past three decades, mainly because more women are in the work force. But the increase was greater among whites, according to the study conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust's Economic Mobility Project, which is separate from the Pew Research Center.
Among black men, incomes have declined in the past three decades, when adjusted for inflation. They were offset only by gains among black women.
In the Jena Six case, some black leaders said that only charging the black teens was questionable since the beating followed a number of racially charged incidents in which white students hung nooses on a school campus. Many poor and black people also faulted the Bush administration for its response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The Pew poll involved telephone interviews with 3,086 people in the continental United States, conducted in September and October. The margin of sampling error was 2.5 percentage points for the total sample, slightly larger for whites, blacks and Hispanics.
Among the findings:
Terence Pell, president of the conservative group Center for Individual Rights, said the Pew findings suggest racial preference policies aren't necessary, noting there are growing divisions among poor and middle-class blacks themselves. His organization is pushing for elimination of affirmative action at colleges and universities.
"The use of racial preferences in admissions has become a sacred cow," said Pell. "In truth, these policies have not been that effective."