November 26, 2014

Ferguson highlights deep divisions between blacks and whites in America

After a grand jury decision not to indict a police officer in the shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., President Obama condemned the riots that followed but said, “We need to recognize that the situation in Ferguson speaks to broader challenges that we still face as a nation.” Obama was speaking specifically of what he described as the “deep distrust [that] exists between law enforcement and communities of color.”

Blacks consistently express lower confidence in police to treat blacks, whites equallyIndeed, Pew Research Center polling consistently shows that blacks and whites have very different views about many aspects of race — from confidence in the police to progress on racial equality. For example, 48% of whites said a lot of progress has been made compared with 32% of blacks, according to a 2013 survey conducted just before the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. The divide widens further when the question is: How much more needs to be done in order to achieve racial equality? About eight-in-ten (79%) blacks say “a lot” compared with just 44% of whites.

When it comes to Ferguson, a larger share of blacks than whites said the shooting of Michael Brown raised important questions about race, according to an August survey conducted just after the event. Eight-in-ten blacks said the shooting raised issues “that need to be discussed.” Whites took a much different view: about half said race was getting more attention than it deserved while 37% of whites shared the views of most blacks that the case raised larger issues.

There was also a divide between blacks and whites about their levels of confidence in any ensuing Ferguson investigations (these opinions were expressed before it was announced that the Justice Department would probe the case). About three-quarters (76%) of blacks expressed not too much or no confidence at all, while about half (52%) of whites said they did have confidence in whatever investigations would follow.

Whites, blacks consistently hold different views of police use of excessive force.One of the most persistent gaps between blacks and whites involves their levels of confidence in police, according to an August survey. In surveys dating back to 1995, the share of whites saying the police do a good job of enforcing the law consistently has been significantly higher than that of blacks, and that past and present divide shows up in related questions on police conduct.

When asked specifically about confidence in police to not use excessive force on suspects, 36% of whites express a great deal of confidence compared with 18% of blacks. Conversely, 40% of blacks express very little confidence in the police on this score compared with 11% of whites who see things this way. And when people of both races are asked about their confidence in police around the country to treat people of both races equally, 35% of whites express great confidence compared with 17% of blacks. About half (46%) of blacks express very little confidence compared with just 12% of whites. On this measure too, the disparate opinions of whites and blacks have remained consistent over time.

Topics: Race and Ethnicity, Violence and Society

  1. Photo of Bruce Drake

    is a senior editor at Pew Research Center.