Systemic Racism or Isolated Abuses? Americans Disagree

Half of Americans say there's a pattern of police killing black men, but the deep divisions show why criminal-justice reform will be difficult.

David Goldman / AP

Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Walter Scott. Freddie Gray.

What does that list mean to you? Is it a list of isolated, if tragic, incidents where black men died in encounters with police? Or evidence of a pattern of police behavior?

There's plenty of polling data that reveals that white and black Americans view the justice system in starkly different terms. By and large, black Americans see a system that treats people unfairly by the color of their skin. Whites are far more divided, but much less likely to see race as a major factor in justice. Even as a stunning 95 percent of respondents in a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll said they expected more racial unrest over the summer, they were split on the causes: Six in 10 whites thought people in Baltimore were just looking for an excuse to loot, while six in 10 blacks saw the riots as anger over police actions boiling over.

In a poll released Thursday, the Public Religion Research Institute approaches the question a little differently, asking whether the litany of deaths are a handful of isolated incidents or part of a broader pattern, and the results cast the debate in a usefully fresh light. Almost half—49 percent—of Americans say they think the killings of black men by police are part of a pattern, while 39 percent think they're isolated.

When The Washington Post and ABC asked a similar question in December, they got almost the opposite result. A slim majority of 51 percent said the deaths up until then were isolated incidents, while just 43 percent said they were part of a pattern. The overall 12-point drop is driven by a shift among white Americans, from 60 percent to 45 percent seeing the incidents as isolated. PRRI finds that three-quarters of blacks see a pattern.

What's changed since December? First, the more recent cases perhaps leave less gray area for the casual observer. Grand juries declined to indict officers in the Brown and Garner cases, but the Scott and Gray cases seem less ambiguous. Video of Scott's shooting, as he ran away from an officer, elicited widespread horror. While much is still unknown about Gray's death, the fact that he apparently sustained fatal injuries in police custody has struck a chord.

Another factor: social and geographic segregation. As Robert P. Jones noted here in August 2014, most white Americans have few close friends who are black. African Americans have been observing how police interact with black Americans their entire lives, but many white Americans have less experience with the issue. If the intense coverage since Garner's death has been one's main exposure to the issue, it would make sense for cases to look more like a pattern as examples pile up.

Still, there are divisions. PRRI finds that 61 percent of Democrats see the killings as part of a pattern, while 65 percent of Republicans say they're isolated. Seventy percent of minority Protestants and 61 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans see a pattern.

Almost six in 10 white evangelical Protestants think the killings are isolated cases. That's not just a matter of overlap with white conservatives; Jones, who is PRRI's CEO, told me that even after controlling for conservatism or Republican affiliation, white evangelicals stuck out. As my colleague Emma Green noted in a deep dive last month, the Southern Baptist Convention is in the midst of a push on racial reconciliation, but it has a steep hill to climb. Not only was the denomination founded as a pro-slavery splinter group, but its focus on individual responsibility for salvation and sin may make Southern Baptists less likely to perceive systemic issues.

The general disagreement over whether killings of black men by police are isolated or connected might seem irrelevant in the context of past debates about criminal justice: If blacks and whites are divided on everything, this would just be another case. But this moment is different. The media attention to killings has created momentum for criminal-justice reform among both conservatives and liberals—but the pattern question could affect how the debate over it proceeds.

Last week, Conor Friedersdorf criticized conservatives, and particularly movement conservatives, for failing to speak out more about police abuses. The PRRI poll shows that it is true that a strong majority of rank-and-file conservatives see these killings as isolated incidents. But the conversation at the level of writers and thinkers is interestingly different—there are notable conservatives who are concerned about the deaths.

What's interesting is that while liberals have tended to see these deaths as a result of systemic racism, in which the police are largely just an expression of the system's bias, the most outspoken conservatives have seen a different, more classically conservative pattern: A pattern of state infringement of basic rights, as expressed in police abusing their power. That is, for example, the argument Michael Graham (no relation to me) makes in a well-read essay in The Federalist taking his fellow conservatives to task for not taking a stronger stand on Gray.

"Freddie Gray was an American citizen who started his day having not committed a crime, and ended the day with fatal injuries sustained while in custody of the government," Graham wrote. "And Republicans are defending … the government? Who are you, and what have you done with my conservatives?"

Leon Wolf has advanced a similar critique of government power in a series of interesting posts at RedState, although he has also touched on race as a factor.

This matters, because it affects the sort of solution someone will favor. There's a solid middle ground of agreement around questioning overpolicing and excessive use of force by police. But if you think that the main problem is the police violating constitutional rights, your prescription will tend to begin and end with the police. If, however, you see police problems as merely a subset of a broader racist system, then you're likely to search for larger solutions that deal with segregation, schooling, and inequality—solutions that are likely to center around large government programs, which will alienate the Michael Grahams and Leon Wolfs of the world. Finding ways to overcome that philosophical difference will be crucial to bipartisan agreement on criminal-justice reform.