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How race, religion, and politics shape attitudes about black people being killed by police

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

When it comes to perceptions of how race impacts policing, it's almost as if black and white Americans live in two different worlds.

A new survey shows that despite countless high-profile police killings of African-Americans, piles of data on racial profiling, and increased attention to the role of implicit racial bias in law enforcement, there's not much more agreement on this issue than there was in the wake of the Rodney King verdict 23 years ago.

New data confirms old racial divides

The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) surveyed 1,003 adults between April 29 and May 3, 2015 — just after the protests and riots in Baltimore that followed Freddie Gray's death — and found that whites were almost four times as likely as blacks to believe that police officers treat people equally (47 percent vs. 12 percent).

Only 17 percent of black Americans agreed that members of racial minority groups receive the same treatment as whites in the criminal justice system, while 78 percent saw racialized differences. Meanwhile, whites were split down the middle on this question, with 46 percent saying things were equal and 47 percent saying they weren't.

The gap between black and white views on this issue is just slightly smaller than it was in 1992, when Americans were polled after the riots that followed the news that the police officers who brutally beat Rodney King would be acquitted.

Public Religion Institute

(Public Religion Research  Institute)

There were also pretty big differences on the fundamental question that's raised each time another unarmed African American is killed in an encounter with police officers: are these unfortunate, isolated incidents, or is there a larger problem linking all of them? Seventy-four percent of blacks said they saw Gray's death and other recent killings as representative of a broader issue. Only 43 percent of whites agreed.

Republicans tend to see recent deaths as isolated incidents

Public Religion Institute

(Public Religion Research  Institute)

It's not just race that's associated with different views on questions about race and policing. The survey found a connection between overall political views and Americans' opinions on whether there's a broader problem underlying the recent killings of black men.

Sixty-five percent of Republicans said the recent police-involved deaths of black men were isolated incidents, while 61 percent of Democrats (including 58 percent of white Democrats) said they were part of a larger pattern.

That's fairly predictably, given the different approaches leaders of the two parties have taken with respect to these issues. "Democrats and Republicans understand the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray in dramatically different ways," Daniel Cox, research director of the Public Religion Research Institute, said in a press release about the survey. "These deep partisan divisions will almost certainly be reflected in the way each party assesses issues within the criminal justice system."

Most white evangelicals see no larger problem

Public Religion Institute

(Public Religion Research Institute)


Among religions, white evangelical Protestants were the only major group in which a majority said the recent police killings of black men were isolated incidents. Fifty-seven percent held this view (and 47 percent of non-evangelical Protestants agreed). It's fair to guess that the differences among religious groups had more to do with the larger worldviews that may go hand in hand with membership in certain denominations than it did with any particular religious doctrine.

A full 70 percent of Protestants who were members of racial minority groups saw a broader pattern involving race and police underlying Gray's death. It's a reminder that race is the most powerful and stubborn factor shaping views on this issue — and that probably won't change until Americans' experiences do.

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