Surveying black women in America

Jan 23, 2012

In a new nationwide survey conducted by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, a complex portrait emerges of black women who feel confident but vulnerable, who have high self-esteem and see physical beauty as important, who find career success more vital to them than marriage. The survey, which includes interviews with more than 800 black women, represents the most extensive exploration of the lives and views of African American women in decades.

Jon Cohen, the project's polling director, and Krissah Thompson, the Post reporter working on the series, discussed the methodology behind this survey. Ask Jon questions about the questions, and what the surveyors learned. Find out how the survey was conducted and why, tell him your opinions, and more.

Read: Survey paints portrait of black women in America

Thanks for joining us! There's already been a lively discussion on Twitter. So let's keep it going.

I've lost patience with the media treating black women as if we are some monkeys in a cage to poke with a stick every now and again. I'm pretty sure there are other ethnicities you could explore as surely you have spilled enough ink on this one.

Actually, studies of the media show that women and minorities do not receive much in-depth coverage. Check out the post here on why we launched this series.

Why did the Post and the Kaiser Foundation decide to do a survey of African American women at this time?

Thanks for joining the chat. The Post and Kaiser have been partnering on surveys since 1995, focusing on big picture issues. We've done several surveys on race, including a major 2006 study on "Being a black man." We've been hoping to focus on black women ever since, and we had the opportunity this year to do the poll. Obviously, having Michelle Obama in the White House gave provides a related angle.

My question is twofold: First, In doing your survey, did you discover a correlation between a lack of romantic or relationship options and Black Women's decisions to pursue a career? For many of us, we have no choice or that's all that's left to do, the most logical next step. Secondly, when will someone turn the tables on Black Men and scrutinize their "poor" choices when it comes to their lack of creating romantic relationship opportunities for Black Women? And I'm not talking about listening to their reasons/excuses why they don't (like the fallback excuse, our attitudes) but digging down to the real issues of lack of commitment and follow through. I think, for most Black women, that's the real problem. There are Black men to date, but not enough who follow through and remain consistent because for some reason society has told them it's okay not to or they have no examples.

Thanks for your question. As you know, black women are not monolithic so the answers were really across the board. As a whole, black women did say they prioritize their careers over romantic relationships. In 2006 the Washington Post launched a well received series on black men, titled "Being A Black Man." It still lives on our website.

Is 800 women a large enough sample size to pull generalizations from?

Always a good question when it comes to surveys. We interviewed nearly 2,000 randomly selected adults, including the 808 black women we focus on in today's story. To get to this number, we interviewed more black women than we would have with a standard national survey. The key is randomization, we called a random selection of landline and cellular telephone numbers, and conducted interviews in English and Spanish. The margin of sampling error of our sample of African American women is plus or minus five percentage points.

League Of Black Women has recently produced the "Risk and Reward" survey from the LBW "Having Our Say" leadership research series, which supports your reported findings and looks at how black women experience risk in pursuit of leadership ambition. It also uncovered attitudes about black women engaging public policy issues. Findings reveal that Black women are passionate about public policy but feel uncertain about their ability to effect it. Does your survey shed any light on this area? Sandra Finley, Pres. & CEO League Of Black Women

Thanks for the comment Sandra. We didn't propose the question of black women's views on public policy. As you know, African Americans as a whole vote for Democrats and many described themselves as supportive of President Obama in our survey.

I would like to know what parts of the U.S. the women represented? What was the main socioeconomic status of the women surveyed? What was the age range of the women surveyed?

We interviewed adults (ages 18 and up) from across the country, with the results representative of black women nationally. In stories in the weeks ahead, we'll break down many of the answers in the poll by educational attainment and income.

Stories surrounding black women's dating options and/or beliefs concerning marriage keep appearing in the media. As a black woman, I find it odd that every 3 months (or so) there's a different article. What is the true agenda? It appears as though the media is on a serious campaign to convince black women that we should not seek out loving marriages. I find it highly disturbing that the author of this article (and her editors) are reporting that most black women prefer to focus on a job/career in lieu of striking a balance and having a professional career and a mate? Also, why does your paper fail to write detailed stories about white, Hispanic and/or Asian American women's views on marriages and career? Why do you only seem to be preoccupied with black women? Black women are tired of being portrayed as caricatures. This article continues to follow suit because at the root, it implies that there is something intrinsically different about us. I'm just not buying it.

I have to disagree. There is no implication of intrinsic difference. We did find that when asked -- in a scientific survey -- black women prioritize their careers. So we pursued that line of questioning and the story explores the answers. In addition, Census data shows that black women are the group least likely to be married. Other groups are following suit, also delaying marriage. But the story is about much more than black women and dating.

I am a graduate student who researchs black women. Is this dataset publicly available? If so, what's the process to get it? If not, when will it be publicly available or who should be contacted about getting access?

Thanks for your interest. We make all datasets publicly available as soon as we're finished using the information for reporting projects. Send your e-mail to polls@washpost.com and we'll let you know. In the meantime, all released questions can be found at www.washingtonpost.com/polls, with a nift interactive here.

As a 50+ black woman, I know that my options for dating are broad. I for one have dated outside of my race for over 30+ years. Most of the men I date appreciate that fact that I'm not a "Princess in Waiting"

Thanks for your comment. Your sentiment tracks pretty well with our survey results. Most unmarried black women are open to interracial dating.

If Kaiser conducted surveys in Spanish, with non English speaking Black women, how exactly are these results representative of Black American women?

We conducted interviews in English and Spanish, with the vast majority of black women interviewed in English

Many people would say Perry's image of black women in his films are inaccurate, however looking at the article about that Survey- black women are a mixture of what is seen in his films. Why do you think that there is a discrepancy such grumbling on Perry's portrayal?

Hmmmm ... this is a tough question to answer. I don't think the survey results or interviews reflected any particular stereotypes. Tweet me @krissah30 if you want to expound on this.

Why are these comparisons done between only black and white women? What about HIspanics and Asian Americans? What about biracials? Don't they count? Too many studies are done comparing blacks and whites.

Many Post-Kaiser surveys expand the focus to white/black/hispanic, including our major race and recession survey last spring, link here: http://wapo.st/fF9SuT. We do have some Latina comparisons in this poll, but the intent was to pay particular attention to African American women in this survey. 

Krissah, thank you for your work. Although many of the black women polled and interviewed said they found career success more vital than marriage, did they go into more detail as to why? I get the feeling that a compatible marriage is seen as not-so-probable, so black women are encouraged to not focus on that aspect of their lives as much. I know this conversation comes up quite a bit with friends, and after a bit of opening up, they very much want marriage (like most other women), but don't see it happening, so they refocus on survival. Also, does anyone ever address the long-term repercussions of the lack of marriages for black women? I am a married black woman, and I find the long-term issues (20-30 years out) surrounding this are rarely addressed.

Thanks for your question. Many of the women I spoke with -- across the board -- were hopeful about marriage but not particularly stressed about being single. Others, were not interested. Interestingly, stats do show that over their lifetimes most black women do marry. The do, however, tend to marry later than other groups.

When we have people in politics that make comments about the FLOTUS and the size of her rear that proves that there is little respect for black women. It's one thing to think about it and quite another to say it out loud, not once, but twice.

"There are Black men to date, but not enough who follow through and remain consistent because for some reason society has told them it's okay not to or they have no examples." I can tell you that white men have the same issues, so it's not limited to just black men. It's all men.

I remember when we were told as little girls we can do it all--the career, the husband, additional college, volunteer work and still look good. When did that change? I grew up admiring my mother for her ability to do it. Why does it have to be either or? My dad still admires my mom after 41 years of marriage. She is still his hero. So, why are these stories painting these pictures of either or. No one interviewed me for this.

From my interviews, I think it is fair to say that black women do want it all. Most people do. But in the course of life, we often prioritize.

Do you think it is worth also breaking up the results by age? I think the differences between black women varies by generation. At 23, I know that I can have both marriage and career and until marriage comes, I will continue my education and enjoying life. It is not an either/or with me or many of my peers.

Great question. The generational stuff is fascinating. We couldn't fit all into day No. 1, but expect more on this front. For example, fully 90 percent of black women under 35 say career success is "very important," tying it for top priority.

I applaud you for a balanced article. Although some of us are making great strides, Oprah, Ursula Burns, Rosalind Brewer, etc, many times black women are marginalized even in their own communities. Your article and the "Dark Girls" movie point this out. The question is, can we be more aggressive about challenging and change the negativity? How?

Does anyone else on the chat want to weigh in here? I did interview Beverly Bond, a DJ who founded the philanthropy Black Girls Rock!, which has as its mission addressing the images of black women in the media -- particularly in hip hop.

As a black woman this story and pictures made me proud, you feature educated multi generation family living under one roof. Im sure the daughter could afford to get a place of her own with her teenagers but decided to live with her mom. I love Alani's hair, their hair styles even featured the diversity of our hair choices!

Since Krissah might not publish this one. I am, to be an echo ... great narrative.

This conversation has become circular and unfair. It goes as: 1) Black women are often viewed unfavorably and so are not as likely to find mates. 2) So, Black women focus on career and education for self-fulfillment and financial stability. 3) But Black women block their chances of love by focusing on career and education. 4) So, Black women try to find love by altering expectations, dating outside their race, etc. 5)However -> 1) Black women are often viewed unfavorably and so are not as likely to find mates. Rinse and repeat. What gives?

Hey. Thanks for your comment. For the women I interviewed there was no set pattern ,and the conversation is really much broader than marriage.

What strategies were used to address biases that may have affected the results of this study? Were the measures reliable and valid?

From a sampling perspective, we worked closely with our research vendor, Social Science Research Solutions (SSRS), to ensure a solid, nationally represenative sample of black women (and all Americans). We wrote questions in as neutral a way as we could. How we did there is open for all to judge, full question wording available here: http://wapo.st/zio6b4

I think it is interesting to put the attitudes about marriage reflected in this poll into the larger context of American society as a whole. Fewer and fewer people get married these days, and fewer think it's important than ten or twenty years ago. Do the surveyed black women differ in this from the general population, or are their attitudes similar to the larger trend away from marriage? I was also struck by some of the "princess" comments (ie, the person quoted felt that black women are not raised with the princess fantasy...the idea that they will marry a man who will care for them, etc. etc.). Do you feel that women in other ethnic groups are raised with that ideal?

I would not want to make any assumptions about how women in other ethnic groups feel. In this poll, we were only able to survey black women, white women, black men and white men. There were some interesting differences between the groups of women.

Here's one paragraph from the story: Forty percent of black women say getting married is very important, compared with 55 percent of white women. This finding is among a number of significant differences in the outlooks and experiences of black and white women, according to the poll. Here are others: More than a fifth of black women say being wealthy is very important, compared with one in 20 white women. Sixty-seven percent of black women describe themselves as having high self-esteem, compared with 43 percent of white women. Forty percent of black women say they experience frequent stress, compared with 51 percent of white women. Nearly half of black women fear being a victim of violent crime, compared with about a third of white women.

 

Why don't you understand that studies like this make it more difficult for black women as a group to find men for marriage? When most guys read your 'findings,' they will assume that all black women prefer their jobs/career to a family and that is simply untrue. Many black women are looking for a balance. Your studies are only contributing to alienating black women from men. -Job well done, you are achieving your mission after all.

When a poll goes into the field, we never know what the results will be and have no "mission" other than hearing what the respondents have to say. Many of the results were surprising, which always makes for a good report.

Jon Cohen from Kaiser has yet to explain why they focussed their research on black women. He mentioned that Kaiser has begun to study other groups, but interestingly that particular 'research' hasn't graced the cover of a major American news paper as of yet. Why is that?

Happy to follow-up. First, I work at the Post, we team up with the Kaiser Family Foundation on these projects. The Post-Kaiser series often focuses on Latinos and other particular groups -- Detroit'ers in 2009, independents in 2007 -- but overwhelmingly we report on public attitudes among all adults nationally. Our 2010 project was on the "role of government" (link: http://wapo.st/9qaiXh). Are there subjects you'd like us to do in the future?

Was it difficult to get the women featured to respond openly and honestly? Also, has the criticism been as it traditionally is that the media is airing black America's dirty laundry rather than contextualizing the experience?

I found the women I interviewed were really willing to engage the subjects and many had already been having conversations about these topics. I think the reader has to decide the "dirty laundry" versus "contextualizing" question. I think we do a good job of putting the data in context. But I guess I'm biased on that point.

I don't believe Black women (from my own nonscientific knowledge of family/friends) do not give dating/romatic relationships priority. I believe that many have "given up," and since it seems not to have happened, or because they have divorced and not found another suitable mate, they choose to focus on jobs/career, which do not seem as scarce as men. I think it's a matter of accepting/accomodating reality.

Here's a comment.

Regarding marriage, I think a new article can be done on why most black women will never marry. The reasons differ and it varies on the womans income, education, religion etc. Most of us are in relationships -  not married, but are not SINGLE. That's the topic never discussed, just 'cause I dont have a ring on doesnt mean I dont have a man at home!

Publishing another comment here.

Why do black women feel they have to make a choice? Why not synegize? I made a decision to marry when I was 24. Still built my career and we have 3 children. Yes, it has been hard work but I wanted both. After 18 years I am still smiling and we both have great careers and a beautiful family. The key is working together and building together. I think we have got stuck in the" when- then sydrome". When I have a successful career, then I can get married. By then your criteria change, the men that wanted to be married have done so and you are loaded, longing for an equal. Wise up sisters. Stop doing the same thing expecting something different!

Here's another comment.

How did you get 808 black women respondents out of 2,000 randomly selected adults? About 12 or 13 percent of the Amercan population is black - something is wrong with the math.

Fair question; I should have been clearer. We included additional interviews with randomly selected black women -- commonly referred to as an "oversample" -- to bring the total to 808. Everyplace we refer to "all adults," the percentage of black women is adjusted downward to its true number, just above 6 percent.

I have more of a comment for those individuals that are commenting negatively on this article and the authors. It seems to me that you only focused on the small portion of the article that mentioned marriage and relationships and not on the sections about faith, career, educational attainment, etc.., which are important issues and deserve attention. I understand that we as women are tired of the media exploiting our singleness, but we cannot always begin reading material about us with deficit-like expectations before we have had chance to read the entire piece and really see what it was about. You all have managed to completely undermine the rest of what the the article had to say with your narrow critiques. Quite honestly, I believe that if no one was paying attention to us, then you all would still have something to say. Kudos to all involved in making this study happen, especially Krissah Thompson who is a fellow UT alumna.

Hook 'em Horns and thanks! And I appreciate praise and criticism. I'm glad we're sparking a conversation. I hope you all will be just as interested in the next installments of the series, which some great colleagues here will be writing.

I see women over and over again say that women haven't found a husband so they are focusing on their careers instead. Unless you are independently wealthy, having a career is normal and expected. One of the other commenters referred to her single friends as having substituted a career for a husband. I wish they would see how derogatory that is. We don't tell men they are substituting marriage when they pursue their career goals and dreams.

Another comment here. Thanks for chiming in everyone.

This is not representative research. 800 is a very small number. How can you feel comfortable making such wide sweeping generalizations about most black women in the U.S.? Irrespective of your 'research,' most black women are interested in FAMILY and Career.

All else equal, it's always better to have more interviews, but, the key to "representative research" is randomization, not number of respondents. That said, there's always sampling error, and at 808, the margin is plus or minus five points.

What is the takeaway from this survey that is universal to all women in America, if any, and what is the takeaway in specific regards to African-American women? I felt like the takeaway, to paraphrase Obama, was that Black women cling to their jobs and Bibles.

Really? Dig into the survey. There's soooo much more there. 

Hi. Was there any discussion about the impact of Affirmative Action on these women, either positive or negative?

This did come up in the sense that women described themselves as wanting to make sure that colleagues, supervisors and peers know that they had earned their career success because of merit. But it really was not a big concern and we did not specifically ask about it in the poll.

Of course Black women can be more aggressive against stereotypes perpetrated against then in their own community, but only where there is a will you will find the way. Diddy had a song with lyrics Asian women found offensive because it played to the stereotype of the submissive, docile Asian women. They barked and he balked. If we are "up in da club" and requesting these tunes on the radio, trust that those who perpetrate the stereotypes won't be able to hear our complaints over the thudding bass.

Another comment here. Thanks for your thoughts everyone.

Thanks very much for the questions. We look forward to continued dialogue on this -- and other -- subjects.

Krissah, as a young black woman, what are your views on marriage and career? Does this survey represent your views?

Hi. I've been married three and a half years. My husband is a great support. He's been very patient with all of the long days and weekends I've worked on this project. I haven't taken the survey myself. Maybe I should! Not sure where I would net out.

Thanks again for the great questions and comments! I'm signing off. But tune in for the next installment tomorrow and for more throughout over the next month.

In This Chat
Jon Cohen
Jon Cohen is director of polling for The Washington Post. He is responsible for conceptualizing, implementing and analyzing all Post polls, and co-directs the Post-ABC and Post-Kaiser surveys. He instituted the Post’s polling blog, Behind the Numbers, and frequently discusses public opinion on radio and television, as well as online chats.

PostPolitics Polling
• Post's Behind the Numbers blog.
Krissah Thompson
Washington Post reporter covering race, politics and FLOTUS
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