In 2020, the widespread protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd took both the news cycle and the American conscience by force. The result was an immediate and seismic shift in public opinion: According to the polling from Gallup in June, 19 percent of Americans consider racism an important issue, up from just 4 percent in May. That made these concerns just as important as the coronavirus to the American public.
The zeitgeist-warping power of these protests wasn’t without controversy. More recently, critics of the movement’s endorsement of ideas like “defunding the police” have blamed them for contributing to the Democrats’ losses in swing districts throughout the nation. President-elect Joe Biden has continued to repeat these warnings out of concern that Republicans will paint the Democratic Party as full-bore endorsers of these ideas ahead of the hotly contested runoffs in Georgia.
This movement, led by Black people, has put policing—and especially the idea of “defunding” the police and reinvesting that money in social services—at the forefront of the fight against racism. But at the same time, it’s brought what looks like a puzzling contradiction to the surface, in which the broader Black community evinces a distinct disapproval of the police while simultaneously voicing the desire to see a more persistent police presence in its communities.
A natural question to ask, then, is what do Black people actually think about policing? As with most issues, it turns out that the answer is: It’s complicated. But new research offers an avenue to resolving this seeming incongruity.
While, historically, polls such as Gallup or the American National Election Survey have asked the public about institutions like the police, their surveys have traditionally included very few Black people among the respondents, thus making it difficult to understand opinion within the Black community. With the advent of large-scale internet panel surveys such as Nationscape and the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, or CCES, we now have the ability to quantitatively understand opinion within the Black community.
Overall data from Nationscape, which has over 19,000 Black respondents, shows that about 44 percent of Black respondents have a favorable opinion of the police, in contrast to the 71 percent of white respondents with similar inclinations. But underneath this nearly thirty percentage point gap in attitudes between Black and white respondents, this masks considerable variation even among Black respondents.
Despite this unfavorability gap, recent polls in the wake of this year’s protests over police misconduct have been a puzzlement: The Black community seemingly wants more police in the streets despite having generally unfavorable views of the police. It also doesn’t seem to resoundingly endorse ideas like “defunding the police.” So what should we make of this?
Let’s begin with the way these questions are posed in the first place. Here, a sample of over 13,000 Black respondents from the 2016 and 2018 versions of the CCES illustrates the problems with taking this type of survey data at face value. In it, the survey asks respondents whether they would like to see the state increase or decrease spending on law enforcement, welfare, health care, education, and infrastructure.
To understand whether attitudes toward increased law enforcement spending are really just about law enforcement or if they actually reflect a more general set of beliefs about the need for more state support of communities, I investigated the degree to which beliefs about primarily non-law-enforcement-related spending issues were predictive of attitudes toward law enforcement spending. As a comparison, I also investigated the degree to which crime victimization might explain these attitudes.
The above figure plots the strength of the association between responses about increasing spending on various social programs and increasing spending on law enforcement, in addition to the predictive power of crime victimization. Values further to the right suggest that those who support spending more on law enforcement are also more likely to support spending on infrastructure, for example, while values to the left suggest a weaker or inverse relationship.
What’s particularly striking is that crime victimization has little predictive power for explaining attitudes toward law enforcement spending—if anything, crime victimization within the Black community seems to be inversely associated with support for law enforcement spending. So these attitudes don’t seem to be related to crime victimization, at least in terms of correlations in these surveys.
In contrast, general attitudes toward state support for communities seem to do a better job of predicting support for law enforcement spending among Black respondents. Specifically, support for infrastructure, education, and health care spending seem to do a much better job than crime victimization at explaining support for law enforcement spending, all of which suggests that support for law enforcement spending seems to be tied to broader desires for state support more generally.
While you might be surprised that support for welfare has no relationship with support for law enforcement spending, especially since it seems to tap into support for more government support in general, research around the politics of welfare shows that welfare policy has operated on the basis of racist stereotypes in ways that undermine the faith that communities in poverty have in government.
When thinking about survey data on attitudes toward the police—especially within communities of color—it’s important to ask what does “more policing” really mean to the members of these communities? While recent polls have made some headway in asking more precise questions, relying on survey researchers to come up with the right question wording alone is no panacea, especially when only 3 percent of public opinion researchers identify as Black.
This is where Johns Hopkins University professor Vesla Weaver, Yale University doctoral candidate Gwen Prowse, and Yale Law School professor Tracy Meares have gotten creative in unearthing how marginalized communities really think about policing, through the Portals Policing Project—an initiative that they hope can deliver a “people’s account of the state.” Unlike traditional survey researchers, the Portals team has partnered with artists and community activists across Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, and Newark, New Jersey.
The Portals technology—a shipping container that uses video technology to bring pairs of individuals from different places into the same virtual living room—is designed to allow organic, free-flowing conversations to take place between individuals who live in different cities but share similar attitudes toward state and local governments and their presence in their communities. As you might imagine, within a sample of 233 conversations between Black individuals across these communities, the topic of police came up quite organically. These conversations tended to reveal a nuance that traditional survey data couldn’t quite capture.
In one conversation between two Black men in Baltimore and Los Angeles, the Portals team found that members of highly policed communities think of the police as just one component of a racist criminal justice system:
B (Baltimore): Big industry, that’s a big industry.
LA (Los Angeles): That’s what I think when they say criminal justice. I look at it from the police all the way up to the state penal institutions. I think they all homeboys and friends. That’s what I’m thinkin’.
B: And the only role that you and I play in that whole circle is the victim.
B: We really are man.
LA: Yes we are. Yes.
B: We the ones they depend on, you know?
LA: They gonna try and put you and I in one of them holes.
B: I asked the officer, when I was arrested, I had tears in my eyes. I said man, why would you want to plant this and lie on me, you are going to really, you’re ruining my life man. You are affecting the lives of many.
LA: Ain’t that somethin’? What did he say, he say yeah?
B: It was funny to him, right. I was in cell over at the precinct one time and a gang of—group of officers, about five, or six of them. All white, one black, right. They were laughing at an officer sharing his story about how he Tased somebody. Oh, I hit him with a Taser, oh it was funny [laughs].
LA: But you’ve gotta ask yourself, in the trainings of criminal justice, I thought it was the color of law. I thought the mandate of law was the voice. I was always under the impression that a person could not act outside the badge, but here in Los Angeles … well damn, this is totally the whole system is debauched, right, I would think.
Not only did the researchers find that participants viewed the entire system as being “debauched,” but they also noted that these individuals consistently revealed themselves to be incredibly sophisticated in their breadth of knowledge of local political figures—for instance, the names of district attorneys—as well as in their frequent connections of historical events, such as Rodney King’s beating by police in 1992 and the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Historically, survey researchers have tended to lament low levels of political knowledge in the American public. But the conversations captured by the Portals team challenge such conceptions, which rely on survey researchers asking about forms of political knowledge or sophistication that do not map onto the lived experiences of highly policed communities.
In another study, the Portals team documents how Black citizens experience an unequal responsiveness by police that erodes their basic trust in the institution:
I really don’t like the police. Like, they don’t respond fast enough when you really need them. They rude as ever, they stop you for no apparent reason at all. Like, they just … I feel like they do too much. Your mission is to serve and protect, but we see you as threats now. Me and my son, we scared to walk down the street. We go home, we shut all the doors, let all the blinds down. We go to bed.
This experience illustrated a broader theme of police engaging in the “broken windows” style of policing, yet being nowhere to be found when “you really need them.”
So, if Black communities see themselves as being threatened by a whole system beyond the police that does not protect them, what do they want instead?
The Portals team has documented that citizens in highly policed communities want what the researchers call collective autonomy—“the action of strategically withdrawing or distancing from the state”—and, instead, a “coming together as a community, acknowledging structural barriers to doing so, and honing a collective consciousness.”
In one exchange between two Black fathers, from Chicago and Milwaukee, the father from Chicago talks about the need for strong Black communities as an alternative to policing from above:
We gotta have something to pass down to our children’s children, you know what I’m sayin, so, I preach that hard man, the black economics thing. I’m for walking in our neighborhoods. I’m not with the walking to the police station. It’s not gonna change nothing, you know what I’m saying? We have to change within ourselves. Community … you know with us being unified first. That’s more what I’m saying with the whole thing. That’s why I click with certain brothers that’s, you know, like-minded and we hit the hoods, you know what I’m saying? We don’t just be hitting any old place. We go to the hoods to show black love and spring black love and chant black love and black power, things like that. And you know, like, chop it up with the people.
There are undoubtedly gradations in the degree and ways in which Black citizens desire such community vibrancy, especially as it relates to gender, sexuality, ability, and class. But what was clear in these conversations was that Black citizens wanted fewer police and more support for their communities.
Through listening projects like Portals, it becomes clear that one answer to the initial puzzle of why Black people seem to want more policing when they have such negative views of the police themselves is that asking whether Black people want more police is not the right place to start. Individuals in highly policed communities would rather be asked about what they need to live fulfilling, vibrant, and safe lives.
The work being done by the Portals project is part of a tradition of listening projects that have a long history, such as the New Deal’s documentation of formerly enslaved people’s narratives, Gunnar Myrdal’s landmark book on racism in the United States, and the 1968 Kerner Commission. All of these listening projects consistently identified the police and the broader criminal justice system as key concerns within the Black community, as well as highlighting the importance of vibrant communities that give Black and non-Black communities an equal chance to live fulfilling lives.
Survey research can often be incredibly useful for gauging the public’s pulse on various issues. Good survey research usually requires asking meaningful questions to the communities being surveyed. But as work by the Portals team shows, sometimes it’s best to not just ask questions, and instead find better ways to simply listen.