According to the new poll, 55 percent of all Americans think blacks and other minorities do not receive the same treatment as whites in the criminal justice system. About half of whites say minorities are not treated equitably, a figure that jumps far higher — to more than eight in 10 — among African Americans.
The survey was conducted as media attention swirls around the fatal shooting of Martin, an unarmed black teenager, in Florida. George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who says he shot the 17-year-old in self-defense, has not been arrested, outraging many observers.
The poll also shows a gaping racial divide in views of the Martin case. Eight in 10 blacks say they think Martin’s killing was not justified, compared with 38 percent of whites. Most whites say they do not know enough about the shooting to say whether it was justified.
Nearly seven in 10 blacks oppose “Stand Your Ground” laws, which hold that people are legally entitled to fight back with deadly force if they feel threatened, even if they could retreat instead. Most whites — 55 percent — support such laws. Florida officials cited their state’s law in explaining their decision to not arrest Zimmerman after Martin’s shooting in late February.
Current events may help shape perspectives on the criminal justice system, according to Dennis Parker, director of the racial justice program at the liberal American Civil Liberties Union. For example, in a 1997 poll conducted days before a civil judgment against former football player O.J. Simpson in the deaths of his former wife and her friend Ron Goldman, whites were far more apt than before or since to say African Americans get equal treatment.
The shift in views could be a result of the intense focus on Martin’s case, as well as broader conversations about racial disparities in law enforcement, Parker said. For instance, “The New Jim Crow,” a book about the impact of the war on drugs on black men, has had a steady place on the New York Times bestseller list, and civil rights groups regularly raise concerns about racial profiling.
“Trayvon Martin is an example, but in every city there are periodic instances of African American men being shot under questionable circumstances,” Parker said. “These instances are being better publicized. Everyone has a video camera in their cellphone.”
Hans von Spakovsky, who manages the Civil Justice Reform Initiative at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said media coverage of the Martin case “would tend to make black Americans think there is unequal treatment.”
“We’re not going to know until and unless the state authorities do a thorough investigation,” said von Spakovsky, who worked in the Justice Department in the George W. Bush administration. “You look at any defendant in the criminal justice system and how they are treated based on the facts of the case. You can’t lump people into categories. Making those kinds of broad generalizations, I think, [is] a big mistake.”
Still, the racial divisions in the way Americans view law enforcement and the criminal justice system have become a major point of debate, said Marc Mauer, who heads the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group that supports alternatives to incarceration.
“Criminal justice has really become the flash point for discussions about race and social justice in America,” Mauer said. “Regardless of where one comes out, the depth of the response and the emotion is clearly an indication that these issues touch very deeply.”
The poll was conducted April 5 to 8 among a random national sample of 1,103 adults. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4.5 percentage points among whites and 8.5 percentage points among African Americans. There were not enough interviews with Hispanics or other racial or ethnic groups for separate analysis.
Polling manager Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.