clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
A group of people, men and women, of all ethnicities, dressed in black and wearing masks, raise their fists.
Mourners listen to a eulogy by Rev. Al Sharpton at a memorial service for George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on June 4.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Filed under:

The systemic racism black Americans face, explained in 9 charts

Longstanding inequalities have led to the current wave of protests.

Sean Collins is a news editor with Vox’s politics and policy team. He’s helped cover elections, Congress, and both the Biden and Trump administrations. Previously, Sean was Vox’s weekend editor.

The current protests — and the anger that fuels them — did not spring up out of nowhere. They are a cry of pain from a raw nerve that has always afflicted the United States, one that was all too often ignored.

That nerve had a number of causes, and a number of things exacerbating it: biased and violent policing, of course, but also lingering effects of segregation affecting education, job opportunities, and health; a multi-tiered wage system that gives white men greater financial rewards than others, most of all black women; a criminal justice system that is punitive if you are black but able to find forgiveness, mercy, and understanding if you are white; the sense that not just one’s labor but one’s life is less valuable than those of other citizens only because of the color of their skin.

People marching in the streets have had enough of this injustice. They are demanding Americans no longer allow themselves to be policed as they have been. They are pulling down memorials to traitorous men who would still have them enslaved. They are calling for lynching to be made a federal crime. They want equal pay; they want political change. They want people to listen carefully, thoughtfully, and to be willing to change their hearts and behavior.

White bourses pull a white carriage with glass sides. Through the glass, a gold coffin is visible. A crowd stands around the carriage, holding up their phones for photos.
George Floyd’s body is brought by horse-drawn carriage into the Houston Memorial Gardens Cemetery for burial on June 9, in Pearland, Texas.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

A historic number of Americans are participating in these protests: According to the Pew Research Center, 6 percent of American adults have taken to the streets in recent weeks, a figure that translates to about 17 million people. Millions more who did not go out want to see real change, too. Recent data shows this — and how the country has reached this point — in the nine charts below.

Even before the protests, black people had far less trust in police

The recent spate of police killings and well-documented police violence at largely peaceful protests — from students being dragged from a car in Atlanta, Georgia, to a 75-year-old man being pushed to the ground and left bleeding in Buffalo, New York — appear to have led Americans to have an increasingly negative view of police, according to a Democracy Fund/UCLA Nationscape poll of more than 6,000 Americans taken from May 28 to June 3.

Pollsters found that the percentage of Americans with an unfavorable impression of police rose from 18 percent in their May 21-27 survey to 31 percent in its May 28-June 3 poll. The polling for both weeks had a 2.2 percentage point margin of error, meaning either number could be 2.2 percentage points higher or lower than was officially recorded.

Regardless, that increase suggests the American public’s perception of law enforcement has begun to more closely mirror the sentiment of black Americans, who even before the recent protests and killings expressed notable skepticism about police.

For instance, in a Pew Research Center study conducted from April 20 to 26 — about a month before George Floyd was killed — 10,139 American adults were asked for their thoughts on police, and researchers received starkly different answers based on ethnicity.

Most Americans have high confidence in police, the study found — except for black Americans. With a 1.5 percentage point margin of error, 56 percent of black Americans said they had a great deal or fair amount of confidence in police, compared to the 78 percent of white Americans who said the same. And confidence was even lower among young black Americans — 49 percent said they had a great or fair amount of confidence in police.

An April 2020 Pew Research Center survey finds that confidence in police among black Americans was 56 percent, compared to 78 percent among white Americans.

Some of that lack of confidence appears to come from a belief that police officers are unethical — 48 percent of black Americans see officers’ ethical standards as being low or very low, Pew found.

An April 2020 Pew Research Center survey finds that 48 percent of black Americans rated police officers’ ethical standards as low.

Many other polls have also captured this lack of trust — for instance, a Washington Post/Ipsos poll taken from January 2 to 8 of 1,088 black Americans (with a 3.5 percentage point margin of error) found that 83 percent said they didn’t trust police “to treat people of all races equally.” Only 14 percent said they did trust police to do so.

The situation has not improved.

A recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll, taken May 29 and 30 — four days after Floyd was killed — of 1,060 US adults (with a 4.3 percentage point margin of error) found that 94 percent of black Americans believe the criminal justice system treats white Americans better. The same poll found that 91 percent of black Americans don’t believe white and black people receive equal treatment from the police. A Monmouth University study (conducted from May 29 to June 1, of 759 US adults, with a 3.6 percentage point margin of error) found that 87 percent of black Americans believe police are more likely to use excessive force against black people.

More recent work from Pew, a survey conducted from June 4 to 10 of 9,654 US adults, with a 1.5 percentage point margin of error, found that the majority of black men — 64 percent — say they have been stopped unfairly by police.

The sum of all these studies is that there just isn’t trust in police among black Americans certainly not to the degree there is among white Americans. And one important reason for that is fear: of violence, of unfair treatment, of death.

Black Americans’ lack of trust in law enforcement is fueled by tension and fear

This general lack of trust has long been undergirded by a pervasive tension, one illustrated in video broadcast on Los Angeles’s Fox 11, in which police responding to property seizures at black businesses arrived at the scene and began to detain the business owners rather than those in breach of the law.

It’s a tension that lies in unpredictability — in knowing that any interaction with police can quickly escalate into an unfair, traumatic, and even life-ending event. It’s why Ta-Nahisi Coates recently told Vox’s Ezra Klein he was leery of calling the police when there were fights in his family’s neighborhood. Perhaps the police would come and make peace. But perhaps they would detain the wrong people, as happened in Los Angeles, or even pursue a course of action that left someone dead, as was the case with George Floyd.

The tension created by this uncertainty was reflected in the May 29-30 YouGov survey, which found that the sight of a police officer makes 60 percent of black Americans feel “less secure.” About one-third — 22 percent — of white Americans said the same, while 32 percent of white Americans said the sight of an officer makes them feel more secure, a sentiment shared by only 5 percent of black Americans.

A chart showing the differences among ethnic groups in terms of how secure they feel in the presence of police. Sixty percent of black Americans said they feel less secure. Sean Collins/Vox

Part of the reason for this is the specter of death police carry for black Americans. A much-cited study by researchers at Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, and Washington University in St. Louis, explained by Vox’s Dylan Scott, found that black men have a 1-in-1,000 chance of being killed by police. For no black American is that statistic abstract. Nor is it, increasingly, for other Americans: Since Floyd’s death, the public has learned of the killings of Javier Ambler, Maurice Gordon, Manuel Ellis, Tony McDade, Momodou Lamin Sisay, Rayshard Brooks, and many others.

There is also fear not just over killing but over racially motivated harassment and detention. The YouGov work found that 43 percent of black Americans say they have been treated unfairly by police, and the Monmouth study found that 44 percent of black Americans felt they or a family member had been harassed by police, compared to 24 percent of white Americans who said the same.

Monmouth’s study also found the majority of black Americans — 87 percent — believe that police are more likely to use excessive force against black people, a sentiment white Americans agreed with, though not by an overwhelming margin; 49 percent of white Americans said police were more likely to use excessive force against black people, while 39 percent felt the use of force wasn’t tied to race.

In addition to the fear, tension, and uncertainty comes a sort of pessimistic cynicism — the sense that if one is the victim of police violence or misconduct, nothing will happen. There was surprise over the speed at which Derek Chauvin, the former police officer who killed Floyd, was arrested: just four days after Floyd was killed. Arrests of those officers who kill rarely come that quickly, if at all — it took nearly a month for the Baltimore officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death, and more than four years for former St. Louis officer Jason Stockley to be arrested for killing Anthony Lamar Smith.

An analysis by the advocacy group Mapping Police Violence found that 99 percent of police killings from 2014 to 2019 did not result in officers being charged with, let alone convicted of, a crime. And that is for those who kill — a situation that would seem to leave little recourse for those who’ve suffered excessive force or were arbitrarily detained.

Black Americans feel this keenly, according to YouGov’s polling. When asked whether police are usually held accountable for misconduct, 82 percent of black respondents said no, compared to the 52 percent of white people, 48 percent of Latinx respondents, and 63 percent of those of other ethnicities who said the same.

And Monmouth’s polling suggests black Americans are forced to face their anxieties and fears around policing more often that other Americans — and in stressful situations. The university’s pollsters asked if an officer had ever kept respondents (or their families) safe in a “dangerous situation.” Across ethnicities, most said police had not; but 41 percent of black Americans said they’d been protected by police, compared to 33 percent of white Americans — a number that, coupled with the survey’s other findings, would seem to suggest that being protected by police has not outweighed the negative perceptions black Americans have of police due to concerns about being victims of violence or unfair treatment.

Black Americans face systemic racism. Police are only a part of that.

There is a deep and multifaceted problem with how police interact with black Americans — but the issues they face, and those the protests concern, go beyond law enforcement: They are systemic, involving government, health, and economics.

Polling reflects this.

An Axios/Ipsos poll taken from May 29 to June 1 of 1,033 American adults (with a 3.1-3.4 percentage point margin of error) found only 18 percent of black Americans trust the federal government to work for their interests; 67 percent feel Congress is doing a bad job, according to Monmouth’s polling.

Results like these come amid a pandemic that has disproportionately affected black, Latinx, and Native Americans — one that the federal government, particularly the executive branch, has struggled to respond to.

Through the end of May, black Americans were hospitalized for Covid-19 at 4.5 times the rate of white Americans, according to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (adjusted to account for differences in age distributions among each ethnic population). While the CDC’s data set is not yet complete — it has ethnicity information for about 79.9 percent of cases — current numbers show only Native Americans have been hospitalized at rates greater than black Americans.

A chart showing higher rates of Covid-19-related hospitalizations for Native Americans and black people compared to other ethnic populations. Sean Collins/Vox

Black Americans face a disproportionately higher rate of hospitalizations, as well as a disproportionately higher rate of death. While black Americans make up about 13 percent of the US population, the CDC estimates they account for 23 percent of all Covid-19 deaths, as of June 3. White Americans, on the other hand, make up about 76 percent of the US population, but account for 53.2 percent of coronavirus deaths, according to the CDC.

Analysis by the nonpartisan study group APM Research Lab of all coronavirus deaths in 43 US states and Washington, DC, found that more than 25,028 black Americans died of Covid-19 before June 9 — meaning one in 1,625 black Americans has died of the disease. By comparison, one in 3,800 white Americans has died. According to the group’s analysis, if black Americans died of Covid-19 at the same rate as white Americans, more than 14,000 black people who died after being infected by the coronavirus would be alive today.

Less severe cases also disproportionately affect black Americans. Analyzing data collected through June 9, the CDC found that black people make up 22.1 percent of all US coronavirus cases. Black Americans are more likely to know someone who has died of Covid-19 than white Americans — an analysis by the NORC Centers for Public Affairs Research found that 11 percent of black Americans have had a family member or close friend die of the disease, compared to 4 percent of white Americans.

The AP’s Kat Stafford and Hannah Fingerhut note that this disparity is even greater in cities and states that faced particularly high case counts, like Birmingham, Alabama, where 15 percent of black adults had a close friend or family member die, compared to 2 percent of white adults.

Regardless of the severity or outcome, Covid-19 represents a health and economic burden for many — particularly black Americans.

While coronavirus testing is usually free, any hospitalizations or emergency room visits related to coronavirus care are not. Covid-19-related hospital stays for an insured person could exceed $1,300, with some patients having to pay more than $20,000, according to research by the Peterson Center on Healthcare and the Kaiser Family Foundation. An analysis from FAIR Health, a nonprofit focused on the cost of care, found that those without insurance — as about 11.5 percent of black Americans were in 2018 — can expect to pay between $42,486 and $74,310.

End-of-life services are also very expensive, with the National Funeral Directors Association putting the median cost of a funeral in 2019 at $7,640.

Unexpected costs like these would be financially ruinous for most Americans at the best of times. A SSRS/Bankrate poll conducted in January (with a 3.39 percent margin of error) found that 59 percent of Americans would be unable to cover a $1,000 emergency, for instance. And even if one has a mild case of Covid-19, the need to quarantine can have taxing financial consequences.

All these costs come as black Americans — who, generally, have always been less secure financially than white Americans — are in a more precarious financial situation than ever.

Black Americans are underpaid and financially disadvantaged

The Covid-19 pandemic comes amid the larger backdrop of a racial income and wealth gap.

Ipsos’s polling found that 33 percent of black Americans said they are in dire financial straits at the moment, nearly double the number of white Americans who reported the same — 18 percent.

Pew polling has captured a similar struggle, and one that is ongoing, finding that 46 percent of black Americans struggle to pay their bills in a typical month and that 48 percent reported having difficulties in April. The number of black Americans found to have bill difficulties was nearly double the number of Latinx Americans — 28 percent — and 2.3 times the number of white Americans, at 20 percent.

Some of this disparity stems from the fact that there are gross inequalities in pay by ethnicity. Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that in the first quarter of 2020, the median pay for a black male worker between the ages of 25 and 54 was $891 per week; for a Latino man of the same age, it was $796 a week. Meanwhile, a white man of the same age averaged $1,128 per week. Women of all three racial groups made less than the average white man, with white women making $906, black women making $767, and Latina women making $701.

A bar chart showing the median US weekly wages in the first quarter of 2020. Sean Collins/Vox; US Bureau of Labor Statistics data

This difference that extends to those classified as essential workers — a group that, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), is about 15 percent black. And it is one that is particularly evident in high risk essential jobs like health care. EPI’s work found that a white health care worker’s median hourly wages were $7.96 more than a black health care worker’s.

A chart showing gaps in black pay for essential workers in some industries. Sean Collins/Vox

The pay gaps are a reminder that being an essential worker was not enough for equal pay in normal times, and equal pay still has not appeared as these jobs became potentially life-threatening — and potentially resource-draining, again, given the costs of care and lost wages caused by infection. Overall, these wage gaps are indicative of a poor economic reality that black Americans have had to endure for centuries, and that has been a source of stress, with millions under constant concern about paying their bills.

The economy is — and always has been — worse for black Americans

Much has been made of the better-than-expected jobs report released at the beginning of June — after record contractions, the Department of Labor reported that the economy added 2.5 million jobs in May.

The fact that there is still 13.3 percent unemployment — roughly 20.9 million people — was ignored by many, including President Donald Trump, who said the report was “an affirmation of all the work we’ve been doing” and “a great day for [George Floyd], it’s a great day for everybody.”

But while it is good news that some Americans got their jobs back, that good news didn’t reflect everybody, particularly black Americans. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, black unemployment increased slightly from April to May, up 0.1 percentage points (87,000 people), as did Asian American unemployment, which rose 0.5 percent (55,000 people).

Much of the growth in May was driven instead by increases in white employment, which increased by 2 million; Latinx Americans accounted for most of the other new jobs — 286,000.

A line chart of US unemployment rates for 2020 by ethnicity. All rates are below 5 percent in January, except for the black unemployment rate, which is at about 6 percent. All rates rise slightly, until March, when all spike — Latinx unemployment rising at the fastest rate, to nearly 20 percent by April. Black unemployment tops 15 percent that same month, and remains flat. Sean Collins/Vox

Black Americans’ exclusion from economic gains is nothing new. In January, when the unemployment rate was 3.6 percent, the black unemployment rate was 6 percent; there were about 5.9 million unemployed people, 1.2 million — or 21 percent — of whom were black. There was a similar disparity between the general unemployment and black unemployment rates in June 2019 of 2.3 percentage points; 2.5 percentage points in June 2018; 3.7 percentage points in June 2008; and in the first half of 1988, 6.8 percent.

All this suggests that even once the economy returns to normal, it will still be a poor economy for black workers. And if the recession triggered by the pandemic mirrors the Great Recession, unemployment numbers for black Americans won’t return to that 6 percent level anytime soon. As an analysis by American Progress’s Christian E. Weller notes, “The decline in prime-age employment rates associated with the Great Recession started two months sooner for African Americans than whites and lasted 15 months longer than it did for white workers.”

One reason the unemployment numbers for black Americans tend to be higher, Weller points out, is that it takes unemployed black Americans about five more weeks, on average, to find work than white Americans, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers.

That means more time being unemployed, and more time having to survive off the depressed income unemployment insurance provides. And when it comes to unemployment, the wage gaps discussed previously begin to affect even those who are unemployed or furloughed.

Unemployment benefits (not counting the temporary $600 per unemployment check provided by the CARES Act) are calculated based on one’s former weekly earnings. This means preexisting wage gaps have only exacerbated inequality at a particularly trying time, as black Americans can expect to receive smaller unemployment benefits on average than white Americans.

Black Americans have been denied opportunities to build wealth

The US Federal Reserve shows that unemployed black Americans have less wealth and fewer resources to leverage during lean times, and that they have struggled with debt even during good economic times.

The Fed’s data on US household wealth shows there is no measure by which Americans of color come anywhere close to the wealth owned by white Americans — a paradigm that has held for centuries. In the final quarter of 2019, white Americans held 84.2 percent of US assets; black Americans held 4.8 percent. White Americans hold 85.5 percent of the country’s net worth; black Americans, 4.2 percent.

The share of net worth of all US households, from 1989 to 2019 in line graph form. The line for white households falls slightly over decades, to 85 percent in ’19. All other ethnicities are clustered near the bottom. Sean Collins/Vox

And black Americans’ wealth is not concentrated in leverageable assets. For most Americans, homes are a source of wealth. But a 2019 report by the National Association of Real Estate Brokers (NAREB) found that 40.6 percent of black households owned homes in the second quarter of 2019, 0.3 percentage points lower than the level of black homeownership following the 1968 passage of the Fair Housing Act.

Those who do own homes often own property that is less valuable for being in a black community. Andre M. Perry, a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, told Vox’s Aaron Ross Coleman that his group’s research found that “after controlling for education, crime, walkability, and many other metrics you might find on Zillow, homes in black neighborhoods are devalued by 23 percent. About $48,000 per home, about $156 billion in lost equity.” And even getting those undervalued homes can be a struggle — the NAREB study found that black applicants looking for home loans were denied at twice the rate of white applicants.

Those who do get loans are likely to have more difficulty paying them off than their white counterparts, because, again, black Americans make less than white Americans of their same education and skill levels. Younger black Americans, in particular, have other debt burdens draining their income, in part because their families had less wealth to begin with.

Low familial wealth means black college-goers take out more in student loans than white students; data collected by New America’s Wesley Whistle found that in 2016, 84 percent of black college-goers took out student loans, compared to 67 percent of white students.

Not only did most black college-goers have these loans, but even before the current economic downturn, they had trouble staying current with their payments. In 2018, the Federal Reserve found that 28 percent of black Americans ages 18 to 29 with student loans had fallen behind on their payments, as had 15 percent of Latinx college students in the same age range. By comparison, 7 percent of white 18- to 29-year-olds with debt were behind.

A bar chart showing the payment status of loans by both age and ethnicity. The chart shows 7 percent of white borrowers ages 18-29 are behind on paying their loans; 28 percent of black borrowers of the same age range are behind. And 15 percent of Latinx borrowers 19-29 are behind. US Federal Reserve

All this is a reminder that there are chronic and interconnected factors that exclude black Americans from the benefits of a strong economy, and cause them more anguish than Americans of other ethnicities — particularly white Americans — when times are bad. And although they are so tangled that it is difficult to tell precisely where one economic issue begins and another ends, it is clear they all have one source: the systemic racism that has devalued black labor for more than four centuries and the social injustices that have stemmed from it.

Black Americans are keenly aware of systemic inequality. Increasingly, others are, too.

For decades, it felt as though black Americans lived in a different reality, and one that went largely unacknowledged.

But the worlds black Americans and other Americans live in seem like they are beginning to converge, in large part due to the recent killings of black people — particularly the killing of George Floyd, which 70 percent of Americans had watched by May 30, according to YouGov’s polling.

Following those killings, there has been an increasingly broad understanding that something is not quite right about American life — and that racial inequality is to blame.

According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll — taken of 1,000 registered voters from May 28 to June 2, with a 3.1 percentage point margin of error — 80 percent of the country believes things in the US are out of control. YouGov’s pollsters found that 57 percent of Americans believe race relations are “generally bad” in the US; 45 percent believe they have gotten worse; and 61 percent of Americans said police killings are signs of a larger problem.

A Democracy Fund/UCLA Nationscape poll of more than 6,000 Americans taken from May 28 to June 3, with a 2.2 percentage point margin of error, found that 96 percent of Americans believe black Americans face racial discrimination. And 62 percent of those said black Americans face a lot or a great deal of discrimination — a figure that jumped 12 percentage points from the survey taken May 21 to 27, suggesting that the protests have played an important role in reshaping the country’s perception of the injustices black Americans face. As of June 10, more than two-thirds — 67 percent — of Americans now support the Black Lives Matter movement, according to Pew.

Understanding historical and underlying issues has led to the protests around the country being seen as right. Pew’s June polling found that 65 percent believe the protests are the result of “longstanding concerns about the treatment of black people.” The WSJ/NBC poll found that 59 percent of Americans believe the killing of Floyd to be a bigger issue than even violent protests, and Monmouth’s polling — taken during a time when there was much coverage of people at the protests seizing property and committing violent acts — found that 54 percent of Americans believed the protests themselves to be justified, and that 78 percent felt the anger behind the protests was justified.

More recent polling from the Washington Post/George Mason University (taken from June 2 to 7, of 1,006 US adults, with a 3.5 percentage point margin of error) found this level of support to be sustained: 74 percent of Americans support the protests — and 90 percent of Americans do not blame the protesters for any violence that occurred during recent uprisings.

With this support has come a rapid desire to see change. The Democracy Fund/UCLA Nationscape poll found that the percentage of Americans with an unfavorable view of police increased 13 percentage points between May 21-27 and May 28-June 3. The Washington Post/George Mason poll found that 81 percent of Americans believe the police need to make changes to ensure all Americans are treated equally by law enforcement. And that feeling that something needs to be altered goes beyond just the police: The Post poll captured a desire for leadership that can help “address the nation’s racial divisions” — 62 percent of Americans said they want this. Monmouth’s polling, meanwhile, found that 74 percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track.

These results help illuminate why there is such broad support for the protesters. It is not only those who march who believe the US is on the wrong track, and that radical changes are needed in policing, political leadership, and the ways people of color are treated.

Politicians have begun to acknowledge this, from the Minneapolis City Council announcing it will restructure the city’s police department to House Democrats unveiling a broad police reform bill. But announcements and intentions are not change — and the data suggests the public will continue to push for it.


Nikki Haley’s “rise” and the Republican flight from reality


What is life like in Palestine? These short films offer a glimpse.

Supreme Court

Elon Musk’s attempt to silence his critics will be heard by one of America’s worst judges

View all stories in Politics