The results are in: A majority of Americans think the Baltimore unrest was just another mad, black riot. The Pew Research Center surveyed the top five reasons an anxious public considered for the unrest, including anger over Freddie Gray’s death, frustration with police-community relations and the socioeconomic challenges. The poverty narrative didn’t stick, with 61 percent believing that “people were taking advantage of the situation to engage in criminal behavior.”
As expected, those attitudes differ sharply by race, with 50 percent of blacks blaming poverty as the reason, compared with 40 percent of whites (interestingly enough, a majority of African Americans—54 percent—also viewed the unrest as “criminal”). There’s also a nearly 10-point gap between whites and blacks when comparing perceptions on police-community relations: Most African Americans, 65 percent, believe that “tensions between the black community and police” contributed to the unrest, while just 56 percent of whites did. Instead, 66 percent of whites support the notion that it was just one more wile out in the hood.
These numbers are significant because they help in our routine evaluation of America on race, police conduct and a #BlackLivesMatter movement trying to find itself ahead of the next election. Polls help us put these experiences into context, especially as we struggle to understand the post-Baltimore public mood beyond casual conversations and flame-throwing conservatives looking for a ratings bong hit.
A just-released Public Religion Research Institute survey finds that there is massive disagreement between blacks (17 percent) and whites (46 percent) on whether people of color receive “equal treatment in the criminal-justice system.” But that is far fewer whites who agree that blacks get fair treatment than the 62 percent who believed it in the late ’90s.
Still, only 49 percent of whites, according to the Public Religion poll, think Freddie Gray’s death was part of a broader pattern of vicious anti-black police treatment, compared with 74 percent of blacks who do.
YouGov’s most recent poll (pdf) also shows a whopping 70 percent of whites finding the reaction to Freddie Gray’s death “unreasonable”—with blacks somewhat split on that argument themselves (38 percent “reasonable” vs. 38 percent “unreasonable”). And only 38 percent of whites believe that Gray’s death was part of a “broader pattern” of police violence.
Republicans, predictably tough on crime, are more likely to cry foul on the police officer indictments than Democrats—33 percent to 12 percent, respectively—according to the Pew poll. Which means that we should brace for quite a bit of racial coding in the GOP presidential primary, using the Baltimore “riots” as a convenient rhetorical backdrop.
These findings closely align with another NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showing 58 percent of whites viewing the unrest as “criminal,” with only 27 percent of blacks viewing it the same way. That almost matches a recent Rasmussen poll showing 63 percent overall are also convinced it was a “criminal” act, including 68 percent of whites who are not buying the poverty and police-brutality causation.
According to Rasmussen, there is actually less sympathy for Baltimore than there was for Ferguson, Mo., in an August 2014 poll, with 54 percent of whites at that time believing that the reaction to Michael Brown’s death was “legitimate outrage.” One theory is that cops in Ferguson, dressed down for Baghdad, clearly lost their minds. Baltimore cops, while not saints, are being credited with keeping some cool.
Still, it’s worrisome that nearly a quarter of whites in the Pew poll, watching the same Freddie Gray arrest video we saw, believe that it was the wrong decision to charge the six Baltimore police officers. In terms of Maryland, that could prove problematic for the prosecutor as defense attorneys argue for a change of venue from majority-black Baltimore. Don’t be surprised if the trial takes place in heavily white, slightly Republican-leaning middle-class counties like neighboring Baltimore County, Anne Arundel County and Howard County (places that are home to many Washington, D.C.-Baltimore-area law-enforcement families).
America, for the most part, may not be as sympathetic to the broader discussion on poverty, as well as the criminal-justice challenges resulting from it. Most whites, especially, don’t want to hear it. Brothers smashing police cars on infinite news loops didn’t help the cause, either, and there’s a larger concern that both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates in the next election cycle will sidestep systemic issues in favor of coddling white fear. Most polled (96 percent in the NBC/WSJ survey) are more worried about bracing for a long, hot summer of urban unrest than they are about finding solutions to prevent that from happening in the first place.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.