By Hastings Wyman –
As the 2016 election season ramps up, strong, blunt or bigoted – take your pick – language in the political arena has been mostly limited to the issue of illegal aliens. But an examination of public opinion with regard to issues raised by police killings of unarmed African Americans and the resulting protests and riots that followed in their wake, suggests that racial issues could be a political minefield waiting to be stepped on.
According to the Washington Post, the 26 police officers killed by firearms this year represent the second lowest number in the last five years. Indeed, police deaths-by-firearm have been on a steady decline since their highpoint in 1975. Nevertheless, events of the past year have had a significant influence on public opinion. Since the recent shooting deaths of police officers in Texas and Illinois, a Rasmussen survey showed 58% of voters believe there is a war on police today. And 60% believe comments by politicians critical of police make police officers’ jobs more dangerous.
Moreover, despite the Black Lives Matter movement, Rasmussen found that 70% of Americans believe that crime in low-income inner city communities is a bigger problem that unfair treatment of African Americans by police. Part of the reason for this might be found in the way crime news is reported. National television news programs tend to focus on the big picture, offering competing views of police behavior toward African Americans, often interviewing a black civil rights activist and a retired white police official.
The local news, however, focuses on the local. In Washington, DC, and probably in many other large urban areas with a black/white population mix, the coverage is on the shootings and killings that have occurred in the immediate area. Here in the nation’s capital, the murders so far this year have exceeded the entire number committed last year. Most, though not all, of the deaths have been black-on-black crimes and are decried by neighborhood leaders, but they continue night after night, and often dominate the local television news. This local violence very likely has a stronger impact on viewers than national broadcasts
So perhaps it is not so surprising that two of the major protests against police mistreatment, in Ferguson, Missouri, and in Baltimore, have been received negatively by most Americans.
After the Baltimore riots, Rasmussen found that a solid majority of Americans believed the riots were mainly criminal actions taking advantage of the situation. And more than half of Americans believe that the recent demonstrations on the one-year anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri were also mostly “criminals taking advantage,” to 31% who considered them “legitimate outrage.”
Moreover, a majority believe riots get worse unless officials act decisively, a view at odds with the notion that a more measured response to law-breaking protestors is better, a view seemingly popular with much of the media. And a Public Religion Research Institute poll in June found that 67% of white Americans believe that protests against government mistreatment improve the country, unless they are black protests, where the positive view declines to 48%.
Blacks and whites have large areas of agreement and disagreement. Rasmussen found a very high 82% of black voters believe that police treat African Americans unfairly, compared to only 30% of whites who agree. But Gallup found that 78% of whites say police treat blacks fairly or very fairly, but with 52% of blacks agreeing.
According to Gallup, 38% of blacks want to see more cops in their neighborhood to 10% who say fewer, and 51% say it’s about right as it is. Moreover, blacks who believe cops treat them unfairly are more likely to want more cops in their neighborhood, possibly because they live in high-crime areas.
So far this year, no presidential candidate, including Republicans, most of whom are white, has tried to raise “the race issue.” Donald Trump, given his penchant for “plain speaking” might be expected to, but he has not, perhaps because, with Obama no longer heading the Democratic ticket, he hopes to increase the GOP’s share of black votes by playing the immigration card. But any Republican candidate must consider whether further damaging his party’s prospects with black voters is worth a temporary boost with white voters.
As for the Black Lives Matter movement, in the past, civil rights activists have found that unless they stir things up, the laws and customs that have hindered African Americans don’t get changed. Moreover, no matter how much black-on-black crime exists, police mistreatment is not justified. But these activists will need to ponder whether keeping the peace outweighs the danger of a racially charged presidential campaign that could help the GOP and discourage a broader liberal agenda favored by most blacks.
Finally, despite some pessimistic numbers in the polls, this writer’s subjective view is that race relations in this country are continuing to improve, perhaps more so than in previous eras. That’s true in part because President Obama is black, and has made being black normal, not outside the mainstream. It’s also true because blacks, whites, Latinos and the myriad other minorities that make up this country are interacting more than ever, at school, on the playing fields, and on the job, and are beginning to take racial diversity for granted. Moreover, more people – especially young people – are talking about race more openly than ever. The key is civility and an effort to understand one another, and despite periods of unrest, that trend appears to be growing.