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Our Refusal to Talk About Race, Class, and Justice Isn't Going to Change

In his speech Friday, Obama noted that attitudes about what happened to Trayvon Martin weren't shaped solely by the experience of learning about what happened at his death. If Obama wanted a broad conversation on racial distinctions in America, he has support in that goal — from black Americans.

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Among several points one might take away from Obama's unexpected statement on the Zimmerman verdict last Friday would be that it doesn't exist in a vacuum. That attitudes about what happened to Trayvon Martin weren't shaped solely by the experience of learning about what happened in Sanford, Florida, that night. If Obama wanted a broad conversation on racial distinctions in America, he has support in that goal. From black Americans.

Both the Washington Post and Pew Research released polls today providing an overview of reactions to the verdict by demographic. The topline responses appear below.

Both polls are, overall, evenly split. About half the country feels as though the verdict was just, half doesn't. (In each line of each chart, the empty space between the bar and the '100' line indicates those who are undecided or don't have enough information.) Each poll also found similar disagreement based on race. Whites are more likely to consider the verdict just; blacks far less likely to. The political breakdown echoes that divide. Democrats are more likely to think the verdict was unjust; Republicans, more likely to think it just.

The Pew poll goes further on the political question, in two notable ways. One is that it broke out Tea Party respondents. They think the verdict was just by a ten-to-one margin. Then Pew broke out white Democrats. They are more likely to consider the verdict unjust — but by less of a margin than Democrats overall. In other words, a racial gap exists within the party as well. As Pew puts it:

While most white Democrats are unhappy with the verdict, dissatisfaction with the outcome is much broader among black Democrats (91 percent dissatisfied) than among white Democrats (56 percent dissatisfied).

The last thing to note: Household income is also a predictor of response. Lower income households were more likely to disapprove of the verdict than wealthier households. We'll come back to this.

The Post also asked respondents if they thought that those charged with crimes received equal treatment under the law. The response, when broken down by race, will not surprise you.

In light of that disparity, it's worth revisiting a conversation between the newspaper's Wonkblog and a pair of political scientists about that differing perception. The argument goes like this. Because black Americans experience the justice system differently — the scientists note, for example, a survey saying that "one of every four black men under age 35 said that the police have treated them unfairly during the last 30 days" —  they are more likely to consider the system unbalanced. That's reinforced when data about higher rates of black incarceration are presented. Whites, however, see the imbalance of punishment as itself a rationale for those higher rates. That is: It happens more, therefore it should happen more. Incidents like the Zimmerman verdict tend to reinforce those perceptions. They make blacks more distrustful; whites more accepting.

This sort of reinforcement isn't unique to the application of criminal justice. On Monday, The Times reported on a study measuring the ability of people in various areas to move between economic classes. In other words: How often a person born poor might make his or her way in to the middle class. Compare the two charts below. The first is a static image of The Times' excellent interactive, showing the likelihood of that movement (lighter colors indicate more social mobility).

Compare that to this chart from Wikipedia, showing the Census tracts where black people make up the largest proportions of the population.

The correlation, with the exception of certain pockets, is obvious. Lower income residents in areas that are heavily black are often unable to achieve better economic status. As outlined in this study, it's just correlation, as The Times notes.

Regions with larger black populations had lower upward-mobility rates. But the researchers’ analysis suggested that this was not primarily because of their race. Both white and black residents of Atlanta have low upward mobility, for instance.

The authors emphasize that their data allowed them to identify only correlation, not causation. Other economists said that future studies will be important for sorting through the patterns in this new data.

In other words: The lower social mobility in the South affects people regardless of race. Why so many black people live in the South, however, is an obvious artifact of American history.

Another study released Monday by the Economic Policy Institute reinforces the link between race and economic status. "Nearly half (45 percent) of poor black children live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty," study author Algernon Austin writes, "but only a little more than a tenth (12 percent) of poor white children live in similar neighborhoods." Race and economic situation are linked, just as race and the application of justice are linked. It seems safe to assume, then, that blacks see entrenched poverty and low social mobility as symptomatic of racial bias, and whites to see it as warranted.

Pew Research included another question in its trial analysis. Should the Zimmerman verdict prompt more conversation about race, or have we been focusing on it too much? The results:

Whites think we're focused on race too much. Blacks think we are talking about it enough.

President Obama's point on Friday was that the verdict should prompt consideration of the multiple factors that go into distrust of the legal system and the bifurcation of attitudes about fairness in American society. It's the case we ourselves made in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict. The verdict didn't answer the questions that the shooting of Trayvon Martin raised — and only those who see fault in that verdict are strongly interested in trying to answer those questions. Safe to assume that willingness to engage on questions of economic disparity wouldn't fare much differently.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.