Violent unrest erupted in Charlotte last week after a police officer shot and killed a black man there, the latest in a series of protests that have, in recent years, emerged in communities nationwide over how police officers use force against people of color.
These demonstrations have occurred in cities from coast to coast, with Charlotte joining a list that, in the past two years, has included San Francisco, Cleveland, Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., among others. The protests have been a pretty regular feature of American life in that period, and they recently surged back into national headlines after fatal shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota over the summer and, this month, Oklahoma and North Carolina.
The protests have been going on for long enough that most people have been able to hear about them, learn about them and consider what they think is fueling them. And, as it turns out, black and white Americans tend to have very different views on what they think is motivating these demonstrations.
While most black Americans say the protests are driven by a real desire to hold officers accountable, white Americans are more likely to cite bias against police as the real cause, according to a new Pew Research Center survey released Thursday.
Overall, about eight in 10 Americans generally think that at least some of the motivation behind the protests has been prejudice against police officers, the Pew survey found.
In this poll, black and white Americans also strongly differed on how they view their local police. White Americans are more than twice as likely as black Americans to think their local police treat different racial groups equally, and the same is true of how white and black people feel about whether police use proper levels of force. (This gap can be found on a micro level, too: A poll in Chicago found that black residents were much less likely than white residents to think police there are doing their jobs well.)
Overall, Americans believe their local police departments are doing a good job, with hefty majorities saying they do an excellent or good job protecting people from crime (72 percent), using proper levels of force (67 percent), treating different racial groups equally (65 percent) and holding officers accountable for misconduct (65 percent). But in each of these cases, white people are far more likely to hold the positive views than black people.
While six in 10 Americans say the deadly encounters involving black people and police are indicative of a broader problem, about eight in 10 black Americans feel this way. A smaller majority of white Americans (54 percent) agree, while about 44 percent say these cases are isolated incidents. (Two-thirds of Hispanic people say there is a broader problem.)
The split in how white and black Americans view the forces motivating protests against police is not particularly new, even if it is striking. Over the summer, Pew found a big divide between how many white and black Americans said they supported the Black Lives Matter movement.
That earlier Pew survey found chasms between how white and black Americans viewed several issues, with divisions on both the role and realities of race. A year earlier, black Americans were three times as likely as white Americans to say that race relations constituted the country’s most important problem.
These concerns seemed to crystallize for many in 2014, the year that saw protests flare up after the deaths of black men and boys in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York. In December 2014, not long after grand juries opted not to indict police officers in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York, national concern over race relations spiked to levels unseen for decades. More than one in 10 Americans said this was the country’s most significant problem, the highest number since after the Rodney King riots of 1992.
There has been other evidence that an intense focus on issues like police shootings can spur greater concerns about how this country handles race.
Take a Gallup poll conducted in July, immediately following a tense three-day span that saw national tensions inflamed after shootings by and of police in Baton Rouge, outside St. Paul and in Dallas. A month earlier, just 5 percent of Americans said race relations was the most important problem facing the country. After those shootings (and with another to follow in Baton Rouge), that number went up significantly, with nearly one in five Americans (18 percent) saying race relations was the country’s top issue. That number has since fallen by more than half.
This is also an issue in the upcoming presidential election, as questions of race relations and policing came up at the debate Monday and on the campaign trail. In a poll conducted in July — in the aftermath of that bloody three-day span — Americans said by a 2-to-1 margin that they trusted Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, to handle the issue instead of Donald Trump, her Republican challenger.
The new Pew survey examining the split between black and white Americans was conducted before the issue of police shootings was again pushed to the fore this week after a series of high-profile deaths nationwide. Since the poll was concluded, a police officer in Columbus, Ohio, fatally shot 13-year-old Tyre King; an officer in Tulsa, fatally shot Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man, and was charged with first-degree manslaughter; an officer in Charlotte shot and killed Keith Scott, with police saying later that they saw he had a gun; and a police officer this week outside San Diego shot and killed what turned out to be an unarmed man reaching for a vaping device.
All told, this combination of factors — particularly the protests in Charlotte, which for two nights were overtaken by violence, prompting a state of emergency — have helped draw renewed attention to the debate over how officers use deadly force.
While the increased focus has brought up the topic again on the presidential campaign trail and across the country, the pace of such deadly shootings have not changed after protests from coast to coast.
Police in the United States fatally shot nearly 1,000 civilians last year, and they are on pace to fatally shoot about the same number this year, according to a Washington Post database looking at such deaths. And though the wave of protests has pushed the national mood on policing more toward reforms — more body cameras, stricter systems of accountability — these measures are still slow to roll out across the country.