Blacks and whites have sharply different reactions to the police shooting of an unarmed teen in Ferguson, Mo., and the protests and violence that followed. Blacks are about twice as likely as whites to say that the shooting of Michael Brown “raises important issues about race that need to be discussed.” Wide racial differences also are evident in opinions about of whether local police went too far in the aftermath of Brown’s death, and in confidence in the investigations into the shooting.
The new national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted Aug. 14-17 among 1,000 adults, finds that the public overall is divided over whether Brown’s shooting raises important issues about race or whether the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves: 44% think the case does raise important issues about race that require discussion, while 40% say the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.
By about four-to-one (80% to 18%), African Americans say the shooting in Ferguson raises important issues about race that merit discussion. By contrast, whites, by 47% to 37%, say the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.
Fully 65% of African Americans say the police have gone too far in responding to the shooting’s aftermath. Whites are divided: 33% say the police have gone too far, 32% say the police response has been about right, while 35% offer no response.
Whites also are nearly three times as likely as blacks to express at least a fair amount of confidence in the investigations into the shooting. About half of whites (52%) say they have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in the investigations, compared with just 18% of blacks. Roughly three-quarters of blacks (76%) have little or no confidence in the investigations, with 45% saying they have no confidence at all.
Reactions to last week’s events in Ferguson divide the public by partisan affiliation and age, as well as by race. Fully 68% of Democrats (including 62% of white Democrats) think the Brown case raises important issues about race that merit discussion. Just 21% of Democrats (including 25% of white Democrats) say questions of race are getting more attention than they deserve. Among Republicans, opinion is almost the reverse – 61% say the issue of race has gotten too much attention while 22% say the case has raised important racial issues that need to be discussed.
By a wide margin (55% to 34%), adults under 30 think the shooting of the unarmed teen raises important issues about race. Among those 65 and older, opinion is divided: 40% think the incident raises important racial issues while about as many (44%) think the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.
Republicans also are more likely than Democrats to view the police response to the Ferguson shooting as appropriate and to express confidence in the investigations into the incident. More Republicans think the police response has been about right (43%) than say it has gone too far (20%); 37% have no opinion. Democrats by 56% to 21% say the police response has gone too far (23% have no opinion). Nearly two-thirds of Republicans (65%) have at least a fair amount of confidence in the investigations into the shooting, compared with 38% of Democrats.
Comparing Reactions to Ferguson and Trayvon Martin
While on balance whites think that the issue of race is getting too much attention in the Ferguson shooting, a higher percentage of whites expressed that view last year after a Florida jury found George Zimmerman not guilty in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. After the Zimmerman verdict, 60% of whites said race received more attention in that case than it deserved; today, fewer whites (47%) say that about the shooting of the unarmed teen in Ferguson.
Partisan reactions to the two incidents are similar. Majorities of Republicans think that in both the Brown (61%) and Trayvon Martin (68%) cases, the issue of race receives too much attention. Majorities of Democrats say both cases raise important issues of race that need to be discussed (68% Brown, 62% Martin).
The Week’s News
Roughly one-in-four (27%) very closely followed news last week about the police shooting of African American teenager Michael Brown and subsequent protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Several other stories garnered similar interest, including the death of actor Robin Williams (27%) and news about the Ebola outbreak in Africa (25%). Similar shares also tracked news about U.S. airstrikes in Iraq (23%) and the situation between Russia and Ukraine (22%).
News interest in Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012 and George Zimmerman’s trial in 2013 was large for several weeks. In March 2012, a few weeks after Martin’s death, 35% of the public followed that story very closely, including 70% of blacks and 30% of whites. Public interest in the Ferguson events was similar to interest in the April 2001 Cincinnati riots after a police officer killed black teenager Timothy Thomas (24%).
Interest last week about Ferguson was highest among non-Hispanic blacks. Fully 54% closely followed news about the shooting and protests, compared with 25% of non-Hispanic whites and 18% of Hispanics.
As is typically the case, adults ages 65 and older paid closer attention than younger adults to many of the week’s news stories. Interest was somewhat similar, however, in regard to Robin Williams’ death. One-in-four adults 18-29 (25%) closely followed his death, compared with 34% of adults 65 and older.
One-in-five young adults (20%) closely followed news from Ferguson, less than the share of those 50-64 (34%) and 65 and older (33%). For the three international stories—Ebola outbreak, Iraq, and Russia-Ukraine—older adults’ interest also was much greater than that of younger adults.
About the Survey
The analysis in this report is based on telephone interviews conducted August 14-17, 2014 among a national sample of 1,000 adults 18 years of age or older living in the continental United States (500 respondents were interviewed on a landline telephone, and 500 were interviewed on a cell phone, including 274 who had no landline telephone). The survey was conducted by interviewers at Princeton Data Source and SSI under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International. A combination of landline and cell phone random digit dial samples were used; both samples were provided by Survey Sampling International. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. Respondents in the landline sample were selected by randomly asking for the youngest adult male or female who is now at home. Interviews in the cell sample were conducted with the person who answered the phone, if that person was an adult 18 years of age or older. For detailed information about our survey methodology, see: http://people-press.org/methodology/.
The combined landline and cell phone sample are weighted using an iterative technique that matches gender, age, education, race, Hispanic origin and region to parameters from the 2012 Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and population density to parameters from the Decennial Census. The sample also is weighted to match current patterns of telephone status, based on extrapolations from the 2013 National Health Interview Survey. The weighting procedure also accounts for the fact that respondents with both landline and cell phones have a greater probability of being included in the combined sample and adjusts for household size among respondents with a landline phone. Sampling errors and statistical tests of significance take into account the effect of weighting.
The following table shows the unweighted sample sizes and the error attributable to sampling that would be expected at the 95% level of confidence for different groups in the survey:
Sample sizes and sampling errors for other subgroups are available upon request. In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls.
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