MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We want to continue the conversation we just started about the new poll, African-American Lives Today. It is a survey conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is one of NPR's funders, and the Harvard School of Public Health. For a closer look at the survey itself, you can check it out on the Code Switch page of NPR.org. And we shared the poll with some guests on the program who've been thinking about or writing about a lot of the issues touched on by the poll.
Still with us are Dani Tucker and Ivory Toldson. Dani Tucker is a regular guest in our parenting roundtable. Ivory Toldson is a professor at Howard University and a regular contributor to the online publication TheRoot.com. Joining us now are Gil Robertson, editor of the book "Where Did Our Love Go? Love and Relationships in the African-American Community," and Danielle Belton, creator of the BlackSnob.com. Welcome to you both.
DANIELLE BELTON: Thanks for having us.
GIL ROBERTSON: Thank you.
MARTIN: I just want to tie a bow onto something we started before the break. And Dani, we were talking about whether there might be an Obama effect in the optimism that African-Americans have, despite the fact that a lot of people are under some real financial struggle right now and some real strain. What do you think? And you think there is.
DANI TUCKER: Oh, a big Obama effect and it doesn't have anything to do with policy. It's the fact that he got in the White House finally and in our lifetime. You know, that is enough to catapult - I mean, imagine, like me being able to look at my son and say, you can actually be president one day. That is the Obama effect for us.
MARTIN: Ivory Toldson, what do you think?
IVORY TOLDSON: I agree, even though I think the Obama effect is fading a little bit. I think that the fact that a lot of the quiet racists have become a lot more vocal and present since he's been elected has added to some unnerve among African-Americans. And I also believe that a lot of the loss in our wealth, dealing with a lot of things that started before Obama, but it hadn't eased up that much, not enough to where black people are really feeling it. A lot of black people are looking more realistic about our situation. That's not to say that we are cowering, but we're starting to look beyond the Obama effect and, you know, wonder what's next.
MARTIN: Gil Robertson, I do want to go back with you, though, to the whole question of love and relationships because it's interesting to me that the Obamas as a couple, I think, have had a very powerful - are very powerful role models for people. I mean, they clearly, you know, make a point of showcasing the importance of their relationship. I mean, President Obama's speech, which was at Morehouse College, was controversial for some, but he made a point of talking about how important his family was to him. Now, Gil Robertson, you just edited a whole collection of essays on love and relationships by African-American writers and I was interested in your take on this poll.
ROBERTSON: Well, you know, you're right. The fact that we have the First Family as an African-American male and female, you would think that, or you would hope at least, that it would resonate throughout the community. I'm not really sure if that's been the case, though. I think that there's a separation between, depending on which population segment you're looking at, how they view that marriage and how they feel that may be relevant to their lives. I think if you're dealing with a more educated, higher-income group of people, they may look at the Obamas as more relevant, as somebody that they can relate to. I think that if you're looking at people who perhaps are making less, the Obamas and the fact that they are obviously enjoying the benefits of a healthy, loving relationship doesn't really - is not really a factor.
MARTIN: Do you mind getting personal? 'Cause your essay in the book talks about the fact that you would like to get married and enjoy the benefits that come with having a long, productive, and permanent partner in your life. However, you say, I've not been too keen on dealing with some of the BS that is necessary to reach that point. What does that mean?
ROBERTSON: Well, you know, like a lot of people of my generation, you know, career was first. A relationship, while it certainly was a priority, it wasn't the number one priority. And so now as I, you know, go through my forties, I start - I'm beginning to sort of wake up and say, hey, you know what, I may have been wrong there, I may have - I may need to switch the order here and make sure that I have someone to take care of me in old age.
MARTIN: Is there a racial - well, take care of you in old age, okay, that might be a clue there. But is there a racial aspect to this that you can identify?
ROBERTSON: Well, I mean, as someone said earlier, I mean, African-American people in general, you know, we're raised to be independent and to be resilient. And I think that when you consider the disparity that exists income-wise and educationally between black men and women, you know, that certainly is something that can be cause for concern and cause for perhaps why you have more women who are like, you know what, I'm good. You know, I got this and I don't know if I really want to deal with some of the downside of being in a relationship. Whereas brothers - it's almost like the identities are in the reverse - whereas back in the day, women married men because they needed the economic benefits that came with it and perhaps we're seeing that at work with the way the brothers responded, you know, to the Harvard study.
MARTIN: Danielle, what about you? You were one of the contributors to Gil's collection of essays. And you wrote a piece titled "The Problem with Marriage." What's your take on this?
BELTON: Well, I feel like it's a complicated issue. I mean, there are a lot of women who do feel that, you know, they make their own money, they live their own life, they own their own home. They don't necessarily see where you need a man for that, but what they do need a man for is for the companionship, for the partnership, for the fact that they might want a family. So that was an interesting aspect of the survey to me.
I really would have liked it if the ages had been broken out more, 'cause 18 to 49 is a really wide swath. Like, at 18 I really wasn't thinking about marriage. In my mid-twenties, I was and I did get married and it was - unfortunate is the nicest way I can describe it. By the time I was in my early thirties, I really wasn't thinking about it all that much and now I'm back. I'm in my mid-thirties and I am thinking about it. So I really feel like, yes, there probably are a lot of women who are like, I don't really want to be bothered with this. But I wonder how that would break out if we actually looked at the specific ages, because most of the women who are my peers, who are in their thirties and forties, are looking for long-term commitment, they're looking for companionship, they're looking for someone to start a family with and are really struggling in finding that person.
MARTIN: I just want to emphasize, what the poll says was that a majority of those surveyed who were 18 to 49 and not married or currently living with a partner, a majority were not looking for a long-term relationship, but of those - but there was a gender divide there, that significantly more men said they were currently seeking a long-term romantic relationship than women did. Ivory Toldson, I wanted to go back to something you said at the beginning, which is how much media attention has been focused on this whole question. First of all, why do you think so much media attention has been focused on relationships in the African-American community, and is that a problem? I mean, is the marriage rate, is the rate of family formation, marriage in particular, a problem?
TOLDSON: No. I mean, it depends on how you define the problem, but the reason, I think, is money. Because if it wasn't driven by money, I think that they would talk to both males and females, but they're only talking to females and that's because - and they're talking to middle-class females at that. So if we look at the demographics, males - black males are as likely or more likely to be unmarried than black women, and poor black women are more likely to be - to not be married than wealthy or middle-class black women. But there was middle-class, black women who may not have been the most vulnerable of the segment. They were the ones who are targeted by the media. So a lot of them were thinking that my success is competing against my chances of finding marriage, when actually the data shows the reverse of that. The data shows that successful black women, more educated black women, higher-income black women are more likely to be married. And so there has been this distortion and I think, you know, perhaps it's putting that perception out there and eventually, perceptions become reality.
MARTIN: Well, we are only talking about African-Americans today 'cause that's the subject of the survey, but I do think there are differences compared to other ethnic groups that are worth talking about. Dani, what's your take on this, though?
TUCKER: Oh, well, first of all, in the lower income, the working income, the Obama-love is very apparent and we are not, in that area, more likely not to look at that. You know, I mean, they love the Michelle-Barack love in the 'hood, trust me. You know, they emulate it. They want it, so I just want to clear that up. But - had to clear that up, for real, because I'm serious. All of us are running around, wanting to be Michelle, looking for Barack. Trust me, we really are.
MARTIN: Well, what does that mean, though? Does it mean somebody who is adoring...
TUCKER: It means that somebody...
MARTIN: Somebody who's nice, somebody who is a family man, what does that mean?
TUCKER: Somebody - what we call a soldier in your corner and you be a soldier in their corner, just like the two of them. That's what we see. What we call quote unquote, your road dog. The person that's going to have your back no matter where you go or what you do. That is the only thing I did differ from this, you know, survey or people's opinions. They always get the low-income and working income and those, wrong. And that's what I want to know.
MARTIN: How so?
TUCKER: I don't know. How many did they talk to? I mean, the young lady was talking about the age disparity. My question is, did you come to the 'hood and talk to somebody about it? Because sometimes they just put, to me, in these things what their opinion is of what we think. And you never asked, because if anybody would've asked, we would've told you.
MARTIN: Told you what, though? What is it? What point do you feel needs to be made?
TUCKER: That point.
MARTIN: That people want to be married.
TUCKER: That we want the same things that upper-income, rich people want. We want the same. We want families. We want relationships. We want stability, and just because we don't make as much money as you doesn't mean that changes what we want and what we desire.
MARTIN: Well, one point that the survey does make is that there is a perception that African-Americans don't value education. And one of the points that the survey makes is that, across the board, African-Americans have a desire for their children to be well-educated, to get to college, to complete college, and so forth. And I think that there is this perception that this survey makes abundantly clear, that across income and across...
MARTIN: ...various levels of educational attainment and income attainment, that people really do have a strong desire for their children to be well-educated. Well, so Gil and Danielle, let's also - what other things jumped out at you in the survey? Well, Gil?
ROBERTSON: Well, you know, the remarks concerning, you know, the schools was something that stood out for me because, as we all know, schools in inner-city communities are in crises mode. I mean, they just closed - are trying to close over 50 schools in Chicago and certainly if you go into a great many of our metropolitan areas, schools in the inner city are not doing so well. So I was surprised at sort of the, you know, the positive or optimistic way that the respondents, you know, how they graded schools. And perhaps that speaks to what the lady was just saying, that the polling pulled from a mostly middle-class, you know, population segment, and so we might have gotten a clearer view perhaps if they had covered the entire community instead of just one segment.
MARTIN: But it's also true, I think, in polling in general - Ivory Toldson, you can back me up on this - that people often are much more positive about their personal circumstances than they are about the global issue.
MARTIN: People might think that their own city is dangerous, but they think that their neighborhood is okay. People, you know, maybe - I don't know. Maybe that's an American thing, that Americans tend to be very optimistic about their own personal circumstances, even if they're concerned more broadly. In the time that we have left, I do want to talk about one thing that was interesting, which is the health findings. And Dani, I noticed - as I mentioned, you're a fitness instructor - the respondents were more likely than the general population to see themselves as overweight, carrying excess weight, or obese. Men, though, were more likely than women to think that they were just fine, that they were okay, at the right weight. I'm just interested in what you make of that?
TUCKER: Oh, well, it runs my business. It fuels this because, for us, men can look like that and get a woman. For a woman, I can't look like that and get or keep a man. So that's the driving force there. You know, with the way I look, you know, can I attract the opposite sex? And well, then, I'm just speaking on a lot of my students and why they're there and I have over a thousand students, you know, in a few states, so, you know...
MARTIN: Dani is a very popular Zumba instructor.
TUCKER: Right, well, Go-go. Go-go music.
MARTIN: Go-go music.
TUCKER: I do Go-go music only. I don't do the Latin. Just Go-go.
MARTIN: Go-go music only, yes.
TUCKER: Just Go-go music. Yeah.
MARTIN: Just to clarify that.
TUCKER: Right, let's clear that up.
MARTIN: Extremely popular.
TUCKER: Chuck Brown, right. But - and that, and as well as their health issues. That is very big, that high blood pressure and that diabetes drives my classes. That, you know, when they walk in there and the doctor says, okay, look, do something or you're going to die, that gets the response. That gets the response, you know. And that is what really is - because a lot of my students are women who haven't really worked out, they don't like the traditional exercise, they don't like - you know. And for black women, another thing, too, they have to relate. Please don't put a skinny woman up there in front of them and tell them to do this. They get offended with that. But in my classes they see women that look like them and they can relate to those women and those women, you know, motivate them. So that health is very, very important in the black community.
MARTIN: And Danielle, the survey points out that some respondents had a hard time dealing with healthcare costs, and I noted that there was a time in your life when you didn't have insurance and that was a problem for you, as well.
BELTON: Oh, yeah. I mean, I feel very empathetic for people who struggle with trying to pay healthcare costs, 'cause in my case, I was trying to cover mental health care costs for myself, you know, trying to pay for medication, trying to pay for psychotherapy, and different types of appointments, and going through all of this without health insurance, and it's treacherous. I was fortunate enough that I have a very supportive family that was willing to be there for me and guide me through this process, to help me get the help that I needed. But there are so many more people who have the same issues that I have or who have physical ailments, who don't have that kind of support system and are left to kind of navigate this backwater of trying to find free or low-cost healthcare on their own. And it's really a tragedy. A lot of people end up going without.
MARTIN: Gil, final thought from you?
ROBERTSON: Yeah, I mean, healthcare is obviously of great concern to all of us and I think that it seems that blacks are finally getting the messaging that, you know, that the CDC and the other groups are putting out there and are putting a greater emphasis on their health, on their diet, and on exercise and on knowing that they have to be an active part and they have to play an active role in the quality of their health. So, you know, like, you know, someone stated earlier, I mean, I think the optimism hopefully will carry through and hopefully will ultimately carry the day. And that, you know, that the optimism that we feel as a community will translate and will hit all segments, the lower end as well as the middle and upper ends.
MARTIN: Ivory Toldson, final thought from you. Was there anything of value in the poll, even though I understood that you had some issues with some of the methodology? What do you think the takeaway should be?
TOLDSON: There was a little bit of hating, you know, I'm at Howard University. I think we have competent researchers there that could carry this, but no disrespect to Harvard.
MARTIN: Duly noted.
TOLDSON: Yeah, but I think we're seeing the confluence of a lot of different issues - health, the perceptions of crime and violence, the income. All of those things lead to some situations in the black community that we really need to look closer at. I was compelled by the findings related to crime because crime rates across the board have gone down, but yet the perception is that they are going up. But perception drives a lot of the psychosocial stresses that a lot of black people feel.
MARTIN: A lot more to talk about, a lot to think about here. Thank you all so much for joining us to talk about this. Ivory Toldson, that's who was speaking just now, is a professor at Howard University. He's editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education and a contributor to TheRoot.com. He was here in our Washington, D.C. studios along with Dani Tucker who is one of our regular contributors to our parenting roundtable. Danielle Belton is editor-at-large for Clutch Magazine online and creator of the BlackSnob.com, with us from St. Louis, Missouri. Gil Robertson is editor of the new book "Where Did Our Love Go? Love and Relationships in the African-American Community." He joined us from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Thank you all so much for being here.
TUCKER: Thank you.
TOLDSON: Thank you.
ROBERTSON: Thank you.
BELTON: Thank you.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.