How African-Americans live their lives – even 150 years after slavery ended – is influenced every day by race.
Their lives are different from those of white Americans not only because of differences in income levels, socio-economic status, business success, education, or even the geographic region of the country they live in, but also by the trust they place in government, other people, and institutions around them.
That’s the finding of a recent survey by Shayla Nunnally, assistant professor of political science in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
“Trust affects how people live their lives,” says Nunnally. “Racial uncertainties can affect everything they do. They may not have been discriminated against in a particular circumstance, but they may fear they might be.”
Nunnally, whose book In Whom Do We Trust? Black Americans, (Dis)Trust, and the Vestiges of Race, will be published next year by New York University Press, says that trust levels among African-Americans are declining, yet counter to what might be expected given the history of race in America, older blacks are more likely to have more trust than younger ones. This, however, depends on the personal experiences that black group members have with race in their lives.
“There is a perceived psychological injury there,” she says, “and that has implications for democracy.”
Nunnally’s research focuses on black Americans’ trust in social and political contexts, their intra-racial and inter-racial attitudes, their racial and political socializations, and their political development.
A national survey Nunnally performed in 2007 of whites, blacks, and Latinos shows that blacks are less trusting in general than other groups of people are and that a lack of trust affects their political behavior, inter-group relations, and even whether or not they vote. They trust other African-Americans more than people from other groups.
The survey shows that African-American voters trust black candidates more than others, but that how they think about candidates and others depends on whether they received messages about race from their parents that emphasized getting along with others across racial groups or taking more precautions and being more distrusting of others. So skepticism influences not only who they vote for but whether or not they trust in government or other people in society, she says.
Respondents in the survey were less trusting if they experienced more racial discrimination, Nunnally found. Some noted that stories of discrimination were handed down through the generations in their families. But the influence of the stories was not as powerful as personal experience – many black respondents in the survey reported feeling the sting of discrimination personally.
“The survey suggests that African Americans have a different way of learning about race and that their perception about race influences their trust in political and social situations,” says Nunnally, honored with the 2009 National Conference of Black Political Scientists’ Fannie Lou Hamer Award for Outstanding Community Service and the 2009 Young Professional Member of the Year Award for the Northeastern Region of the National Urban League.
A lack of trust can influence various political outcomes, she says, and the extent to which one trusts can affect blacks’ willingness to interact with others. The research shows that blacks trust more in certain situations – such as in a religious community — than in other situations, but that they remain skeptical even in these contexts.
“Most crucially, this affects group socialization,” Nunnally says. “Race is part of how African Americans perceive society. It affects how they live their lives.”
A graduate of North Carolina Central University, Nunnally earned her master’s and Ph.D. degrees in political science from Duke and was an Erskine A. Peters Dissertation Fellow at the University of Notre Dame. She has a joint appointment with the African-American Studies Institute.