August 28, 2013

The black-white and urban-rural divides in perceptions of racial fairness


A recent Pew Research Center survey asked Americans of all races how black people are treated relative to whites by the police, the court system and other institutions in their community. The results show a large and consistent black-white gap in perceptions, with blacks far more likely than whites to say African Americans are treated less fairly than whites.

Survey respondents were asked about seven specific institutions or realms of community life: the police, the court system, the workplace, stores and restaurants, public schools, the health care system and elections. If responses to all seven items are added together, half of whites (49%) do not see unfair treatment in any of the seven areas, compared with 13% of blacks who say this. On the other hand, 58% of blacks say at least four of these community institutions are unfair, compared with just 14% of whites.

Perhaps most notably, on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we found few differences in perceptions based on geography. Among all respondents—regardless of race—whether he or she lives in the South or Northeast, Midwest or West did not make a difference in one’s perception about fair treatment of blacks. Among whites alone, there is only one significant difference: those in the South are more likely than those in the Northeast to say that none of their community institutions treat blacks less fairly than whites (53% vs. 43%).

But there were wide variations in perceptions based on whether one lived in a city, the suburbs or a rural area.

Adults who live in urban areas, regardless of their race, are much more likely than those living in rural areas to see racial inequality in each of the seven institutions, with gaps ranging from eight percentage points (in stores or restaurants) to 20 percentage points (in dealing with the police). Suburban dwellers fall in the middle of these two groups.

FT-racial-fairness-02The gap in perceptions between urban and rural residents is widest when it comes to the treatment of blacks in the criminal justice system. Half of all urbanites say blacks are treated less fairly than whites in dealing with the police, compared with just 30% of rural residents. And a similar gap emerges regarding the courts—about four-in-ten urbanites (41%) see racial bias, compared with about a quarter of those who live in rural areas (24%).

Urban residents are also more likely than suburban residents to say blacks are treated less fairly than whites in each institution except local public schools, which the two groups rate roughly equally. However, the gaps between urban and suburban residents are markedly smaller than the gaps between urban and rural residents, ranging from about five to seven percentage points.

When all seven items are combined into one measure, about half of people who live in rural communities (52%) say none of these institutions treat blacks less fairly than whites in their community, compared with 42% of suburbanites and just a third of urbanites who say the same. And while similar shares of urbanites and suburbanites see disparities in the treatment of blacks in at least four of these institutions (29% vs. 24%), the share of rural residents who say this is much smaller (16%).

The community-type gaps hold even when looking at blacks and whites in each community type separately. Rural whites are particularly likely to say that none of their community’s institutions treat blacks less fairly than whites—58% of rural whites say this compared with 49% of suburban whites and 43% of urban whites. Conversely, whites living in urban or suburban areas are more likely than whites living in rural areas to say that three or more of their community institutions treat whites and blacks differently (26%, 22%, and 16%, respectively).

Relatively low shares of blacks in urban or suburban community types say that none of the institutions treat blacks less fairly than whites (10% and 15%, respectively). But while two-thirds of blacks in urban areas say four or more of the institutions in their community treat blacks less fairly than whites, the share is markedly lower among blacks in suburban areas (53%). The sample size for blacks in rural areas is too small to provide reliable estimates.

Topics: Race and Ethnicity, Discrimination and Prejudice

  1. Photo of Eileen Patten

    is a former research analyst focusing on Hispanic, social and demographic trends at Pew Research Center.


  1. Barbara Blanton4 years ago

    My son, a white Texas lives in mid-Brazil, Bello Horizonte with his 6 year old son. His ex wife a little bit of many races including Lebanese, African, White, Indiginous….the usual beautiful Brazilian mix and but light. Leo, my grandson Looks white with blue eyes although he is a mixture. He is treated specially because he looks white. It really irritates my son.

    The lighter you are in Brazil, the better you are treated and the higher you can rise in the culture and jobs. It is sickening. As a white person, I am treated better too!

    So you see, discrimination happens everywhere.

  2. bmurdoch4 years ago

    These results are to be expected. Essentially, I see very little difference between racial treatment in the areas with which I am familiar (For example, I don’t go to church.). However, I’m white and live in the suburbs, so I rarely see or experience unfair treatment. If you’re black, apparently you’re more likely to experience unfair treatment and to report it in the survey.

  3. Ken4 years ago

    Perception is reality, no matter how you slice it. It seems to me that someone who feels that he is being treated unfairly will be less cooperative in dealing with the institutions mentioned in the survey. This will, no doubt, cause those institutions to be wary in dealing with black people just as a matter of “once burnt, twice learnt”. Furthermore, more than a few african americans are quick to cry “prejudice” if things do not go entirely their way. Compromise is not part of their make-up. Observe how few african americans offer to give up their bus seats to elderly white passengers, or make way on the sidewalk for elderly white pedestrians.

    Some of us who participated in the initial civil rights movement were summarily shunted aside once the Civil Rights Bills were passed. We get no credit whatsoever from the current movement, and are often told to mind our own business: “It’s a Black thing”.

    Furthermore, the NAACP and Operation Push are quick to take credit for the advancements made in the laws and the courts without granting due credit to Dr. King’s SCLC. Southern states are derided for their histories, yet some of those states, Georgia and South Carolina, for example, have come along into the movement much further than certain urban areas like Chicago, which is still called “the most racist city in America”.

    In my opinion, these situations are no different now than they were in 1965. The cure, as always, is communication. However, it seems to me that the ball is on the black side of the court now.

    1. LW3 years ago

      So, what you’re saying is that as an African-American person, when I’m stopped by a policeman or I have to go to court, I already have one strike against me due to my race. My fate has already essentially been decided. By the way, how is the ball on the Black side of the court when we don’t control these institutions. And by the way, despite what you say about SCLS not getting its due as far as advancing Civil Rights, even you would agree that MLK is the most venerated of all of the Civil Rights icons. I have to call BS on all of your points.

      1. LW3 years ago

        Sorry about the typo. Meant SCLC not SCLS

      2. some13 years ago

        From my experience, I do agree with Ken to an extent. The part about cooperation is true in many situations. Here’s an example.

        Let’s take out the race part and replace it with (ex)criminals. When being approached by the police, they do tend to be less cooperative and t think they are being singled out for whatever reason. I think it’s mainly due to their past experiences. (Of course I’m generalizing, not all are like this)

        I also agree about using the “race card” in society today. It happens a lot, no matter what race it is. (Again, I’m generalizing, but bear with me. Also I apologize ahead of time for using words unpolitically correct.)

        The minority/”color” people will use the “race card” when being approached by authorities. Their reason? …. They feel as though they are being judge by the color of their skin, even though they were doing something suspicious. On the other hand, the majority/”white” people use the “race card” in a similar, yet different way. They feel as though minorities has “special” treatment. So it’s only fair to say that, discrimination can occur anywhere and by anyone.