PRINCETON, NJ -- The death of 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown at the hands of a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, has reopened the subject of black Americans' relationship with the police, and more generally the differences in the way blacks and whites look at the criminal justice and civil rights situations in the U.S.
A review of Gallup data provides a social and cultural context for these issues.
1. Confidence in Police
Blacks in the U.S. have a significantly lower level of confidence in the police as an institution than do whites.
Combined 2011-2014 data measuring Americans' confidence in the police shows that 59% of whites have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the police, compared with 37% of blacks.
The police are among the three highest-rated institutions out of 17 tested in terms of whites' confidence, behind only the military and small business. Among blacks, police drop to seventh on the list, behind not only the military and small business, but also the presidency, the church or organized religion, the medical system, and television news.
This racial gap in confidence in the police has been evident in the data throughout the past decade and a half that Gallup has been measuring these trends on an annual basis.
Notably, this substantial racial gap is much more muted in terms of confidence in the criminal justice system. Those confidence ratings are low in general, but there is no difference between the views of blacks and whites in terms of positive confidence in the criminal justice system. Blacks are, however, somewhat more likely to say they have very little or no confidence in the justice system than are whites.
2. Honesty and Ethics of Police Officers
Blacks give police officers lower honesty and ethics ratings than do whites.
Gallup data on a different question -- asking Americans to rate the honesty and ethics of various professions -- show a significant black-white divide in views of police officers, although the gap is not as large as the overall confidence gap in police as an institution reviewed above. In Gallup data from 2010-2013, 59% of whites say the honesty and ethics of police officers is very high or high, compared with 45% of blacks.
3. Perceptions of Treatment by Police
Younger black males are more likely than older black men or black women to report having been treated unfairly by police within the past 30 days. Among young black men, this is the highest level of perceived unfair treatment out of five situations measured.
About one in four young black men interviewed in Gallup's June 2013 Minority Rights poll said they had been treated unfairly in dealings with police in the past 30 days. This was one of five situations asked about in the survey, and incidence of unfair treatment by the police was more common than any of the other four among 18- to 34-year-old black men. The other situations measured included unfair treatment while shopping, while dining out or in attendance at theaters or other entertainment venues, at work, and while getting healthcare.
Perceptions of having received unfair treatment from the police were almost as high among 35- to 54-year-old black men as among those 18 to 34, but much lower among older black men. Black women were less likely than black men to perceive unfair treatment at each age.
At the same time, the reports among all blacks of having received unfair treatment by police was lower last year than in most of the previous years. Seventeen percent of all blacks said they had been treated unfairly in 2013, down from a high of 25% in 2004.
4. Black-White Differences in Views of the Need for New Civil Rights Laws
Blacks in the U.S. have consistently been more likely than whites to say new civil rights laws are needed to reduce discrimination against blacks.
Black Americans are much more likely than whites to say that new civil rights laws are needed to reduce discrimination against blacks. In Gallup's Minority Rights poll in 2013, 53% of blacks said such new laws are necessary, compared with 17% of whites.
5. Views of Discrimination Against Blacks in the Criminal Justice System
Blacks are more than 2 1/2 times as likely as whites to say the higher rates of incarceration among black men than among white men is attributable to discrimination against blacks.
Americans were asked in Gallup's Minority Rights poll last summer about their perceptions of why black males constitute a disproportionately high percentage of those incarcerated in the nation's prisons. Overall, 80% of whites said the cause was not discrimination but something else, while blacks were divided roughly 50-50 in their responses.
The disproportionality of black men's contact with the criminal justice system has become a focal point of the debate that has arisen out of the Ferguson police shooting incident. In 2011, U.S. Department of Justice statistics indicate that more than 3% of all black males were in prison, compared with 0.5% of white males and 1.2% of Hispanic males. Other estimates find that one in three black males can expect to be in prison at some point in their lifetime, compared with one in 17 white men.
Polling conducted after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a young black male killed in 2012 at the hands of a neighborhood watch coordinator for a residential development, showed major black-white differences in perceptions of the case and the way the criminal justice system was handling it. Going back further in time, blacks and whites had similarly starkly different views of the criminal justice system and the murder case involving O.J. Simpson in the 1990s. Preliminary surveys conducted by several research organizations after the recent Ferguson, Missouri, shooting death of Brown have shown similar racial divisions in opinions on the matter.
All of these reactions are symptomatic of the underlying gap in the ways whites and blacks view the police in the U.S. today. Blacks have significantly lower levels of confidence in the police as an institution, and lower assessments of the honesty and ethics of police officers specifically.
This underlying structural negativity toward the police among blacks has been starkly evident in the black community's reactions to the Missouri shooting death, as has been the case in each previous such incident that has received national attention.