Racial Discrimination: Obama, Gates and the Police

Jul 23, 2009 9:35am

African-Americans long have reported unequal treatment in society at large and in the criminal justice system specifically – the latter echoing President Obama’s comments last night on the Henry Louis Gates Jr. incident in Cambridge, Mass.

Most broadly, as recently as January, 74 percent of blacks in an ABC/Post poll said they personally have experienced racial discrimination. Most said it’s happened occasionally or even often, rather than rarely. And it’s not an issue among blacks alone: Sixty-eight percent of other non-whites also report experiences of racially based discrimination. That compares to 30 percent of whites.

Specific to the Gates case, 76 percent of African-Americans in our poll said blacks in their community do not receive equal treatment as whites from the police. (Fewer than half as many whites, 34 percent, shared that view.) And yet more germane is this: Thirty-seven percent of blacks said they feel they personally have been stopped by the police solely because of their race – soaring to 59 percent of black men, compared with 22 percent of black women. (It’s 20 percent among other non-whites.)

That result supports Obama’s position: “What I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there's a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact."

There are reports of discrimination beyond police stops. In the most common, 60 percent of blacks report experiences in which they felt a shopkeeper or store clerk tried to make them feel unwelcome because of their race. Thirty-five percent think they were denied a job because of their race; 20 percent, denied housing. Taking these together, three-quarters of blacks report personal experience of discrimination in at least one of these categories, and 44 percent, in two or more of them.

That’s personal experience; perceptions tell a similar tale. Beyond relations with the police, 60 percent of African-Americans say blacks in their community don’t have as good a chance as whites to get a job for which they’re qualified, 54 percent say they don’t receive equal treatment when they visit local businesses and half say they don’t have as good a chance as whites to get housing they can afford. Whites are far less likely to perceive discrimination against blacks in any of these cases.

Given all this, it’s perhaps no wonder that just 20 percent of blacks think African-Americans have achieved racial equality in this country; indeed just 38 percent of whites think so as well. But there are brighter notes. An additional nearly four in 10 Americans, blacks and whites alike, told us they think blacks “will soon” achieve racial equality. And celebrating the inauguration of the first black president, 26 percent of Americans in January called racism a “big problem” in this country, half of what it was in a 1996 poll – down sharply among blacks and whites alike.

A last point: While these results cover experiences of racial discrimination, we do not have survey data on the other side of the debate – that is, among police who encounter what they regard as obstreperous behavior worthy of a disorderly conduct charge.

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