The Washington Post

Trayvon Martin case: Poll finds stark racial divide

African Americans and whites have starkly different views about the circumstances surrounding the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the “Stand Your Ground” law at the center of the controversy, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The findings reflect a basic difference of opinion: African Americans overwhelmingly see the criminal justice system as stacked against blacks and other minorities, but whites are far more divided on the matter.

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.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has been a business reporter, covered presidential campaigns and written about civil rights and race. More recently, she has covered the first lady's office, politics and culture.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Comments
Show Comments
The Democrats debated Thursday night. Get caught up on the race.
The Post's Chris Cillizza on the Democratic debate...
On Clinton: She poked a series of holes in Sanders's health-care proposal and broadly cast him as someone who talks a big game but simply can't hope to achieve his goals.

On Sanders: If the challenge was to show that he could be a candidate for people other than those who already love him, he didn't make much progress toward that goal. But he did come across as more well-versed on foreign policy than in debates past.
The PBS debate in 3 minutes
Quoted
We are in vigorous agreement here.
Hillary Clinton, during the PBS Democratic debate, a night in which she and Sanders shared many of the same positions on issues
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the polls as he faces rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz heading into the S.C. GOP primary on Feb. 20.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 18%
Fact Checker
Trump’s claim that his border wall would cost $8 billion
The billionaire's claim is highly dubious. Based on the costs of the Israeli security barrier (which is mostly fence) and the cost of the relatively simple fence already along the U.S.-Mexico border, an $8 billion price tag is simply not credible.
Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio
The complicated upcoming voting schedule
Feb. 20

Democrats caucus in Nevada; Republicans hold a primary in South Carolina.

Feb. 23

Republicans caucus in Nevada.

Feb. 27

Democrats hold a primary in South Carolina.

Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands
Most Read

politics

Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.