Today fewer than 4-in-10 (38 percent) of Americans say that blacks receive equal treatment under the criminal justice system. That's a ten percentage point drop from one year ago, when the public was evenly divided on the question.
This finding comes from the Public Religion Research Institute's latest American Values Survey. It finds growing skepticism among every demographic group over the way the criminal justice system treats minorities. More than 6-in-10 young adults now say that blacks don't receive equal treatment over the law, a number that has skyrocketed nearly 50 percent in the past year. Whites, Republicans and older Americans are less likely to see racial disparities in the justice system, but they are still significantly more likely to say the system treats minorities unequally than they were a year ago.
“Americans are increasingly doubtful that the criminal justice system is colorblind,” said Daniel Cox, PRRI's Research Director. Significantly, most of the responses on this question were collected before the shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, which drew national attention to the treatment of blacks by the police and courts. Had the survey been fully conducted after Ferguson, it stands to reason that the drop in confidence in the justice system may have been even steeper.
However, the numbers do allow for some comparison between people who were interviewed before Ferguson, and those who were interviewed after. The events didn't have a large impact on Americans' opinions of racial justice overall - 38 percent said blacks receive racial justice before the shooting, while 36 percent said the same after.
But there were some racial differences. Whites were slightly more likely to believe in equal racial treatment after the Ferguson shooting. The 4 percentage point jump isn't huge and I'd caution against making too much of it. But in the event that it's not just a statistical blip, it would comport with other recent research showing that whites view the criminal justice system more favorably when they learn it perpetuates racial disparities.
More significantly, non-white respondents were about half as likely to believe in equal treatment under the law after Ferguson. Belief in racial equality among this group plummeted from 29 percent before Ferguson to 16 percent after.
As I've noted in the past, black and white Americans tend to have highly divergent experiences with the criminal justice system. So the racial differences on the PRRI survey question are not necessarily surprising, even if they are quite troubling.
But the loss of faith among Americans in the colorblindness of our police and judiciary is new. A slim majority of whites now disagree with the idea that the law treats blacks and other minorities equally. Combined with the growing attention on racial disparity in the post-Ferguson world, these numbers may portend a serious desire for meaningful reform going forward.