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.


  1. Jerry3 years ago

    Completely wrong. Ferguson demonstrates the difference between what is acceptable behavior in certain cultures and the national norm, and the ability of people to ignore the facts of what actually happened in order to further their own political positions.

  2. J Rusk3 years ago

    In the late 1960s Cincinnati was hit with riots that had violence, property destruction, burning of businesses, gun fire, and major looting.

    In the late 2014 Ferguson was hit with riots that had violence, property destruction, burning of businesses, gun fire and major looting.

    Nothing has changed.

  3. Steve3 years ago

    I have never seen a police officer get violent with a person who respects the law and is compliant.
    I do not see respect for law enforcement.
    I do not see respect for human life from the criminals.
    How is a police officer supposed to act?

    1. Al3 years ago

      Agree! You are treated in respect to your actions, dress, and mannerisms!

    2. Elsie Lane3 years ago

      You must be white. You don’t realize that black people have a very different reality when it comes to everyday life, ESPECIALLY in encounters with police officers. I consider myself to be a respectable person, yet every time I go into any kind of upscale store, the owner follows me around. I am just a teenager in high school, but I’m so used to this indoctrinated, subtle racism that it has become a part of life. Meanwhile, why don’t you read the New York Times about any race issues? They’ll break it down for you very well and help you to realize that the problems run much deeper than the ignorant stance of, “Treat police with respect and they’ll treat you with respect.” For many of us, especially people of color or people in impoverished conditions, respect works just as well as waving around a loaded gun. Respect does not work. Racism is alive and well, and people like you just help to perpetuate it.

      1. Gary3 years ago

        Well said.

      2. Everyone’s a victim2 years ago

        No they have no right to enter a police car and assault a police officer. I don’t do those things so I have very little fear of being shot!

      3. Everyone’s a victim2 years ago

        I will tell everyone the same thing I tell my students, “stop playing the victim.” Instead of blaming police officers (some may be racist, but the majority are not), start looking at the real problem. Racial profiling is very real in our country. Black Americans are looked at more suspiciously than white Americans by nearly everyone, including other blacks. The culture of violence, drugs, and womanizing in many inner cities does not go without consequences. I would like to the Jesse Jackson’s and Al Sharpton’s of the world try to impact the real problem instead of pointing fingers at white America. Impacting real change in poor black neighborhoods is hard, blaming others is easy. Not to mention, this has a lot more to do with education and poverty than race. But keep blaming cops for following there training when they respond to a situation where they are attacked. “Hands up don’t shoot” is political not social. Even when faced with the facts of the case, no one will take any responsibility. #youarenotavictim

        1. You’re wrong.2 years ago

          The real problem is the police brutality that has been happening for YEARS. Cops should not be trained to shoot and kill, only to shoot and wound. In Mike Brown’s situation, IF the cop had cause to use force at all he should have shot to wound, not kill. Also for bullets to hit his legs, arms, hands, and head shows the real situation here.

  4. mikie3 years ago

    As a white career fireman and fire officer, I had a lot of experience working with the various layers of police officers from local, county and state departments. I have had exceptionally few instances where the officer was cordial, friendly or congenial. In almost every incident the officer wanted to demonstrate his power and authority which made many situations very tense. Especially concerning the medical calls for patients with mental anxiety or PTSD. Since I retired I have had a couple of very negative contacts with the county police where the arrogance of the officer really ticked me off.

  5. Dan Keating3 years ago

    A good reason why whites and blacks have different opinions is that they are having drastically different experiences with segregation and integration right now in this country.…


  6. Packard Day3 years ago

    Not since the OJ Simpson verdict have we witnessed such a notable divergence of opinion between the black community and the rest of the country. Res ipsa loquitur.

  7. hmm3 years ago

    instead of the biased “unarmed black teenager”, how about these descriptions:

    -black robbery and assault suspect
    -adult robbery suspect
    -black adult male who attacked a police officer

    1. Elsie Lane3 years ago

      So you don’t realize how “Black robbery and assault suspect” and “Black adult male who attacked a police officer” are ALSO biased?

    2. Whatever3 years ago

      How is “unarmed black teenager” biased? It’s 100% true. Are you saying people deserve death for a minor robbery like that?

  8. Maazin3 years ago

    Why leave out Hispanics, Asians, and other minorities? America is not just black and white.

  9. Gary Mullennix3 years ago

    Who were surveyed, especially amongst blacks?

  10. pgm3 years ago

    My expectation is the police will treat all citizens with equal disdain,contempt and suspicion regardless of race,religion or creed.

  11. amil3 years ago

    Mrs. Brown said this could have been your son, no it could not have been my son because I taught my children the difference between right and wrong.

    1. Tess Stewart3 years ago

      I wish there was a way to thumbs up your post bc you are 100% correct.

    2. Grant Fehr3 years ago

      “Right” is what you can get away with. “Wrong” is when you get caught. That’s the American dream. Whites practice and admire it each and every day. But when you’re black that first part is not available, while the second part can get you shot. It’s not about “morality” — that’s pompous and dishonest nonsense. It’s about “equal justice under the law” — who gets it and who does not, whether “right” or “wrong”.

      1. Anderson3 years ago

        If that is your idea of the American dream, I wonder if you are going to resist arrest when you get caught?

        1. Al3 years ago

          I think Grant has just voiced the true problem! The lower economic black community seems to believe that justice is not getting caught. Acting and dressing as thugs and behaving immoral is okay as long as you don’t get caught and they just can’t seem to understand why if you dress and act like a gang banger why people immediately suspect that you are there to cause trouble.

          1. Whatever3 years ago

            He did voice a real problem. The real problem is white cops can murder a black person for no real reason and get away with it; apologetics will excuse them for it, because the victim was a “thug” – he sold cigarettes, illegally! A crime deserving death penalty, surely.
            Whether racist or just plain incompetent, those cops deserve punishment. That they don’t get any – indeed, they get showered with money by ignorant, terrible people – shows there’s a problem.

    3. How do you know?2 years ago

      How could you possibly know what this woman taught her child?