APS Member/Author: Fabian G. Neuner
After a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets, both across the United States and around the world. Americans’ reactions both to Floyd’s death under officer Derek Chauvin’s knee and to the ensuing protests have followed a familiar script. Some see it as further evidence that U.S. policing is deeply racist; others think protesters are overreacting to officers trying to do their jobs. Opinion largely divides along racial lines, with some variation by party affiliation.
Why do black and white Americans have such different perceptions of what happened? Here’s what our research reveals.
White and black Americans interpret police killings differently
The Floyd protests echo the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests that spread after a Ferguson, Mo., police officer shot and killed Michael Brown. Three weeks later, we surveyed a broad national sample of 3,729 Americans, using Qualtrics Panels, to better understand reactions both to Brown’s death and the protests.
We found a stark racial divide in American opinion, as you can see in the figure below. Black Americans and white Americans had very different beliefs about whether the officer should be charged with murder, and whether the protests were appropriate. Black Americans were more likely than whites to think that race played a significant role in the shooting and less likely to think that the police response to the protests was appropriate. Further, blacks and whites disagreed about what had actually happened between the two men — whether Brown had attacked Wilson and whether he had a weapon.
Different interpretations come from different beliefs and expectations
What could plausibly explain why black and white Americans interpret these events differently? First, it could be that they received different information about the events. Perhaps they followed different news sources that reported what happened in different ways. Second, it could be that they received similar information, but they themselves interpreted it in different ways.
If the key factor is interpretation, individuals may have interpreted the information differently for one of two reasons. First, individuals may want to view members of their own race in a positive light, and therefore focused on information that showed the member of their racial group more favorably. We describe this as “race-based motivated reasoning.” “Motivated reasoning” here means that individuals are interpreting information with the goal of making their racial group look good. This is similar to partisan motivated reasoning that Democrats and Republicans use to judge politics. Alternatively, black and white Americans might have different beliefs and expectations about police bias and black victims’ culpability, perhaps because of their own lives or the experiences of others they know.
What this tells us about the current protests
Our work suggests that Americans’ existing beliefs influence how they interpret police violence. Americans disagreed about Ferguson because they had different beliefs about whether police generally behave fairly — and therefore whether someone who was killed must have been culpable in some way. These beliefs are shaped by the different experiences that black and white Americans have with the police and with the criminal justice system more broadly.
To be sure, in the years since Michael Brown’s death, many more white Americans have seen video evidence of excessive police violence. A recent Monmouth poll suggests that Americans are far more united in believing that the Minneapolis officer acted inappropriately than they were about the Ferguson shooting. But they split along racial lines in whether they do or do not support the protests.
Our data suggest that one plausible reason for this divide is that black Americans are more likely to have been mistreated by the police or known someone who has, while white Americans who have not observed this personally may think that biased policing is rare. Indeed, that same Monmouth poll finds that 87 percent of black Americans think police are more likely to use excessive force when a culprit is black, while only 49 percent of white Americans do. However, both numbers have increased since 2014, suggesting that protests and online video evidence may be persuading more Americans of all races that police bias is a problem. Widely shared videos of police attacking protesters may change opinions further still.
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