Two recent studies have found a new racial divide facing America right now—namely, the optimism gap.
Carol Graham of the Brookings Institution studies happiness and inequality. In September, she analyzed Gallup-Healthways data that asked respondents to predict how satisfied they would be with their lives in five years.
She found something that might seem surprising: black people, whether they were rich or poor, displayed the most optimism of any group.
Last month, she looked at feelings of optimism among poor groups by race. Here too, she found that poor black people had the highest likelihood of feeling optimistic.
Poor black people were also less likely to say they were experiencing stress than poor people of other ethnicities.
Given the enormous obstacles that black people—especially poor black people—face in America, how could this be true?
In a phone interview, Graham pointed me to research showing connections between a sense of community and optimism. For instance, a 2001 study by Harvard's Kennedy School of Government found that levels of civic engagement—"how much residents trusted others, socialized with others, and joined with others, among other measures"—predicted the quality of community life and residents' happiness far better than levels of community education or income.
Research has also shown that black people have higher levels of community engagement than members of other races. For instance, a survey published by nonprofit group CivicYouth.org found that a higher percentage of black people volunteer more than 100 hours a year. High civic engagement is also associated with religiosity, and the Harvard study found black people to be the most actively religious racial group in the country.
"For every Ferguson, there’s been a Charleston," Graham said, referring to the police shooting of Mike Brown, an unarmed black man, and the massacre of 9 churchgoers in South Carolina's largest city, respectively. "When you're religious, there's a strong sense of community."
Graham also pointed to an "Obama effect," something Gallup touted directly in its findings, which showed that from 2008 to 2015, the percentage of black people who reported themselves to be "thriving" jumped a full 6.1 points—even though, at 53%, it remained below all other groups.
"These data show that something as seemingly distant from Americans' personal lives as the election of a new president and the policies that he advocates can affect the way they view their lives," Gallup said. "President Obama's Democratic Party affiliation and his race both had an apparent effect."
Finally, economic indicators really have been improving for black people. Since 2009, black median weekly earnings have climbed 14%, a rate that trails only Asians, BLS data show.
And black people have seen faster growth in their employment-to-population ratio than any other racial group since 2009.
Graham also points out that the proficiency gap between the poor and the rich is nearly twice as large as that between black and white children, while the overall black-white wage gap has also narrowed (black males earned 69% of the median wage for white males in 1970 and 75% by 2013).
Another factor in the unlikely optimism of black people is that they tend to compare their well-being not to white communities, but to black communities of previous generations. Graham points to a report by Andrew Cherlin that showed that poor and middle-class black people are more likely to compare themselves to parents who were worse off than they are, while most blue-collar whites are insecure and facing much more competition for jobs than their parents did.
"Poor whites, they know they're unlikely to live as well as their parents," she said. On the other hand, both poor black people and poor Latinos are doing better than their parents, on average.
"Both those racial groups can envision that their children they’ll live better than they will."
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.