Poll Shows Big Disparity Between Races, Ages on Ferguson Decision

December 8th 2014

Mike Vainisi

A new poll shows that 58% of white Americans approve of the Ferguson grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Mike Brown. Black Americans overwhelmingly disapprove.


Source: Washington Post - ABC News poll

This poll comes from the Washington Post and ABC News, and it illustrates America's racial divide on these issues. In it, 58% of whites approved the decision, while 85% of blacks disapproved. Overall, Americans slightly approved the decision, 48%-45%. 

There's also a racial divide over whether the federal government should bring civil rights charges against Wilson. The numbers are similar -- 57% of whites would disapprove of federal charges, while 85% of blacks would approve of charges. Overall, 48% of Americans do not approve of federal charges while 47% do not.

Hispanics also disapproved of the grand jury decision (60%) and approve of federal charges (67%).

So why are whites so far off from blacks and Hispanics?

1. Racism still exists. Surely some of the white respondents would have been against an indictment simply due to racial animus. Not exactly breaking news. 

2. Political Tribalism. It's not only racism, per say, that colors opinions on these issues. As with every controversial incident in America, Ferguson became highly politicized as time wore on. There are likely many white people in this poll who might have initially been on the fence about indictment, but, once this story made its way through the cable news meat grinder, it was no longer about police use of excessive force. It became an argument about Al Sharpton, Eric Holder, Charles Barkley, and looters. I think there are plenty of non-racist white people who dislike liberal political figures, and they naturally find themselves opposing them.

We can see this in the poll results: 67% of Republicans approved of the decision, while 27% of Democrats approved of the decision. Meanwhile, almost 75% of Democrats would approve of federal civil rights charges, while only 21% of Republican would approve.

3. White America is not exposed to the tension between the black community and law enforcement. Many white people simply do not understand that black people truly have it worse when it comes to dealing with law enforcement. You can see this in some of the the anti-Mike Brown memes that came across the internet. Those memes usually centered around whether Mike Brown was a good person. "This kid had to have done something wrong," the memes seemed to say. "Police officers have a tough job -- they don't just shoot people." These memes evoked disbelief that a simple police encounter over walking in the street could somehow rise to the level of a police officer shooting an unarmed person without that unarmed person having deserved it.

Of course, if you follow these stories, you know this escalation between police and black men is all too common. The #CrimingWhileWhite and #AliveWhileBlack hashtags are examples of efforts to expose white Americans to this reality (on Twitter, at least). We'll see if the Twitter generation grows up more aware.

What does the polling tell us about Millennials? Overall, just 30% of those under 30 approved of the grand jury decision. Two-thirds of those under 30 would approve of federal charges. The poll did not release where white Millennials specifically fell in these percentage. Seniors, by the way, approved of the decision not to indict at a rate of 62%. This huge gap in opinion between young and old is likely influenced by the demographic make-up of Millennials, who are most racially diverse generation in history. The 43% of Millennials who are non-white may relate to Mike Brown or Eric Garner and thus disapprove of the grand jury indictment. Additionally, even white Millennials may understand these issues because so many of their peers are non-white.

Maybe the Eric Garner case will be different. Many conservative and libertarian commentators online were outraged about the Eric Garner decision not to indict, even if they approved of the Ferguson decision. The Garner case seems to have transcended ideology because we all saw the video of Eric Garner being suffocated by New York police officers. It's impossible not to have a visceral reaction to seeing Garner die on the street, and that rawness might overcome any biases about race or politics.

The Garner case has not been polled yet. We'll let you know when it is.