Public opinion on race in America is split almost down the middle — and despite the events of the last few months, most of the division concerns whether race itself is even an issue at all.
A staggering number of Americans think race had nothing to do with the high-profile non-indictments of the white police officers who killed black — and unarmed — men Michael Brown and Eric Garner, a survey by the Pew Research Center revealed Monday. And a majority of these people are white.
The refrain, "It's not about race" is heard about the Ferguson protests and its repercussions across the country as often as "black lives matter" — a battle of narratives that's as paradoxical as it is revealing. The stark divide begs the question: Can America really be a post-racial society when nearly half of the country — including almost everyone who's not white — considers itself to be living in a racist one?
That, at least, is the picture presented by the Pew poll: Many Americans of Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo's race think skin color had nothing to do with the non-indictments, while many Americans of Brown and Garner's race think the opposite.
Of the 1,507 people polled, 48 percent said race was "not a factor at all" in Brown's case, and 39 percent reached the same conclusion about the Garner grand jury decision — versus 43 and 44 percent, respectively, who said that race was a factor, whether minor or major in the cases.
The divide grew starker when split along racial lines, with 60 percent of whites saying race was not a factor in Brown's case, and 48 percent in Garner's — while 81 and 80 percent of blacks, respectively, thought the opposite.
Unsurprisingly, opinions on the outcome of the grand jury deliberations also varied widely along racial lines, with 80 percent of blacks saying jurors made the wrong decision in not charging Wilson with Brown's death, and 90 percent saying jurors were wrong not to indict Pantaleo for killing Garner.
By contrast, 64 percent of whites supported the grand jury decision in Brown's case, though that figure dropped to just 28 percent in Garner's — presumably because the whole thing was caught on video.
"America remains fairly segregated by race, it's not really driven by institutions as much, but Americans are actively engaged in a type of self-segregation," Dan Cox, director of research at the Public Religion Research Institute, which has also polled public opinion on race and recent events, told VICE News. "Three-fourths of white Americans have only white people in their social networks. They don't have friends with different experiences for them to learn and draw information that may challenge their preexisting notions.
"People without those experiences and those friendship networks tend to have very different attitudes about racial issues," Cox added. "They are probably more likely to believe that race is no longer an issue because generally, in their lives, it doesn't really come up."
The Ferguson protests and, more recently, the Eric Garner ones have forced the issue of race in front of people that would rather believe it's a non-issue, causing a cognitive dissonance that is hard for some to accept.
"It can be easy to see someone as being flawed but it's a lot more difficult to see the system as being flawed, and as treating people differently," Cox said. "And it can be very discomforting to believe that police, judges, and prosecutors are treating people differently based on some attribute that people have no control over.
"There is a desire to believe that we are a post-racial society," he added, citing President Barack Obama's election as the culmination of that narrative. "But what's been very apparent in the last six years is that these issues are very much still with us, and they divide how we see the world."
On whether police interactions should be videotaped, at least, there's more agreement, with 90 percent of blacks and 85 percent of whites thinking it is a good idea for police to wear body cameras.
But the non-indictment in Garner's death, which was filmed by a bystander and subsequently viewed by hundreds of thousands of people, led many to point out that more cameras — including 50,000 body cams that Obama announced will be given out to police departments — won't necessarily mean more accountability.
"It doesn't even save us from being denied justice," Ashley Yates, an organizer with Millennial Activists United and one of the leaders of the Ferguson protests said after a meeting with the president to discuss the new measures. "It has not stopped them from killing us."
Perceptions of police, unsurprisingly, vary widely depending on race. Whites and blacks agree that relationships between minorities and police not getting any better, but 52 percent of blacks say relations are actually getting worse.
A protester at a recent rally in support for Eric Garner in New York City. )Photo by Alice Speri/ VICE News)
A separate analysis released Monday by Gallup shows that few blacks have any confidence in police — only 34 percent of them do, and the numbers plummet further among blacks in urban areas, those more likely to be targets of police profiling.
The Gallup numbers also show the impact of politics on perceptions of law enforcement — with Republicans showing much higher confidence in police than Democrats and independents.
Most blacks also believe that the broader US justice system is stacked against them, a different Gallup analysis shows.
Perceptions have changed little since the first protests erupted in Ferguson in August — but blacks and other minorities increasingly believe they do not receive the same treatment as whites in the criminal justice system.
Research by the Public Religion Research Institute released ahead of the Ferguson announcement revealed that views about the fairness of the criminal justice system are highly stratified by race, with 53 percent of white Americans believing that black and other minorities receive equal treatment in the criminal justice system, and 73 percent of blacks disagreeing with that view. Those views were similar when respondents were asked about the fairness of law enforcement, and sharply influenced by the media sources they most trusted.
The events in Ferguson barely changed those beliefs, and that's mostly because we don't like our convictions to be challenged.
"Major events like the shooting in Ferguson tend to have very short lasting effects on attitudes, and that's because there are both individual and structural impediments for us to be making significant attitudinal changes," Cox said. "We filter information through our own preexisting biases, and discordant information is often ignored or reinterpreted so that it conforms with many of our preexisting notions about something. And we also tend to consume media that reinforces our beliefs.
"People who most trust Fox News are most likely today to believe the criminal justice system is fair than they did before this all started," he added. "That's really the power of media to really have an influence on how people are perceiving an issue."
And yet half of America continues to divorce race from what happened in Ferguson and Staten Island, and, even among those who recognize its role, some find race to be too divisive to tackle straight-on.
Earlier this month, after meeting with black and Hispanic Ferguson protesters and social justice advocates, Obama made no mention of his own race in public remarks. But the protesters that met with him said they want recognition that Brown's killing in Ferguson — and dozens of incidents like it across the country — were about race.
"Why is it so difficult for you to display a moment of honesty and reflection to the public about your own blackness?" Tef Poe, a St. Louis rapper and leader of the Ferguson protests wrote in a scathing open letter to Obama.
"We need the backing of our black president to say that this is a racial issue and that he stands behind us," Yates added.
Instead, the president framed the issue as a matter of perception. "When any part of the American family does not feel like it is being treated fairly, that's a problem for all of us," Obama said.
New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, who is white, was less ambiguous about the role of race in the recent protests, and the "reality" of those perceptions.
"Chirlane and I have had to talk to Dante for years about the dangers he may face," the mayor said, referring to his African American wife and biracial 16-year-old son. "He's a good young man, law abiding young man who never would think to do anything wrong. And yet because of a history that still hangs over us, the dangers he may face, we've had to literally train him, as families have all over this city for decades, in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers—who are there to protect him."
Then, noting a mantra used in the recent protests, de Blasio added: "It's a phrase… that should be self-evident. But our history sadly requires us to say, black lives matter."
One of the slogans of the Ferguson protests, at a recent New York City rally. (Photo by Alice Speri/ VICE News)
"We have to have an honest conversation in this country about the history of racism and the problem that has caused parents to feel their children may be in danger in their dynamics with police, when in fact the police are there to protect them," de Blasio said later. "What parents have done for decades who have children of color, especially young men of color, is train them to be very careful whenever they have an encounter with a police officer. It's different for a white child. That's just the reality of this country."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi
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