The vast majority of African Americans say police unfairly target them

The situation in Ferguson took a turn for the worse on Wednesday night, with clashes between police and protesters escalating and two reporters -- including one from the Washington Post -- being arrested for unclear reasons. We are re-posting the below, from Monday, in light of the developments.

The killing of an unarmed black teenager by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., on Saturday has led to protests, looting and some heavy-handed police-work. Those protests harken back to a situation with more parallels -- racial and otherwise -- than anybody involved would prefer to see: Trayvon Martin.

If the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown captures the nation's attention like Martin's did it's predictable that opinions on the matter could be vastly different between black and white.

In the months after the 2012 killing of the 17-year-old Martin -- an unarmed black teenager who went out one night in Sanford, Fla., to buy candy and was shot to death by a neighborhood watch volunteer -- views of the incident quickly cemented along racial lines. A Gallup poll in April 2012 -- just more than a month after the shooting -- showed a majority of African Americans (51 percent) viewed the man who shot Martin, George Zimmerman, as "definitely guilty." At the same time, non-blacks were much more undecided (61 percent), with just 11 percent saying Zimmeran was definitely guilty and another 21 percent saying he was "probably guilty."

By July 2013, when a Florida jury found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter in the case, the split was even more pronounced. While 87 percent of African Americans said Martin's shooting was unjustified, just 33 percent of whites agreed, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

In addition, just 9 percent of African Americans approved of the not-guilty verdict; whites approved of it 51 percent to 31 percent.

The Martin-Zimmerman case, of course, was hardly the first example of a huge racial split on a high-profile case.

After NFL Hall of Famer O.J. Simpson was acquitted in 1995 of murdering his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and waiter Ronald Goldman, 71 percent of African Americans said Simpson was innocent, according to a Washington Post poll, while 72 percent of whites said he was guilty. Just a few years earlier, both whites and blacks found fault with the not-guilty verdict for the police officers accused of beating Rodney King in Los Angeles, but there was still a significant racial split, with nine in 10 African Americans  disagreeing with the verdict, and six in 10 whites objecting.

Plenty of things have yet to shake out in Ferguson, and details are still scant. Local police say the officer was involved in a physical altercation in which he was pushed into his squad car and struggled to keep hold of his gun. Protesters have been holding their arms in the air -- a reference to accounts of the shooting that suggested Brown was cooperating when he was shot, with his own arms up.

But the situation and its aftermath are already causing some very strong and wide-ranging reactions. And racial divisions over the criminal justice system suggest that's quite likely to be the case going forward. On Monday the FBI said it had opened an investigation into Brown's shooting.

In the Trayvon Martin case, the Gallup poll in 2012 showed African Americans were much more likely to view race as a contributing factor not just in Martin's killing but also in the decision by authorities not to immediately arrest Zimmerman.

While 72 percent of blacks said race was a major factor in the situation that led to Martin's shooting, just 31 percent of whites agreed. Blacks said 73-20 that Zimmerman would have been arrested right away if he had shot a white person; whites disagreed 49-35.

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And this is really just an outgrowth of Americans' preconceived notions of the criminal justice system.

African Americans are much more likely to believe the criminal justice system is biased against them, with a Gallup poll showing 68 percent believe this to be true. Just 25 percent of whites see the same bias against blacks.

Similarly, Pew polling last year shows many more blacks saw themselves as being treated unfairly when it comes to public institutions -- most notably in dealing with police (70 percent) and the courts (68 percent).

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And this feeling is personal for many of them. A Gallup poll from last year showed 17 percent of African Americans said they felt that they had been treated unfairly by the police in just the previous 30 days. That's down from a decade ago, but still a striking figure, considering the short time frame involved.

There is plenty of evidence that Americans of all races believe that society has progressed when it comes to racial equality and ending  discrimination. When it comes to law enforcement, though, that same perception of progress doesn't necessarily exist.

This is the racially charged backdrop for the debate and demonstrations that will continue to unfold over Ferguson in the days and weeks ahead.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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