In the debate over the “defund the police” movement, both Democrats and Republicans have pointed to attitudes in black communities about policing to support their opposition to the idea.
However, when it comes to policing and crime, black attitudes elude simple explanations. In polling, black people often express disgust at police racism yet support more funding for police. A 2015 Gallup poll found that black adults who believed police treated black people unfairly were also more likely to desire a larger police presence in their local area than those who thought police treated black people fairly. A 2019 Vox poll found that despite being the racial group with the most unfavorable view of the police, most black people still supported hiring more police officers. And more recently, a June 2020 Yahoo News/YouGov survey taken after the killing of George Floyd found that 50 percent of black respondents still said that “we need more cops on the street,” even as 49 percent of black respondents said when they personally see a police officer it makes them feel “less secure.”
Black people are not a monolith. Their opinions vary by age, gender, and class. These complex, seemingly contradictory feelings reflect the dilemma of being black in America. America’s political class often demands black people decide between abysmal options — between unemployment and minimum wage, between displacement and gentrification, between peer violence and police violence.
On law enforcement, the choice black Americans have historically faced is either suffering from the shootings, beatings, and stabbings of racist cops, or suffering from violent crime in redlined neighborhoods — again, abysmal options.
When researchers actually take the time to listen to black people, however, they find black people don’t want to choose between two bad options.
“Don’t get me wrong,” writes police abolitionist Mariame Kaba in the New York Times. “We are not abandoning our communities to violence. We don’t want to just close police departments. We want to make them obsolete.”
“We should redirect the billions that now go to police departments toward providing health care, housing, education and good jobs,” Kaba continues. “If we did this, there would be less need for the police in the first place.”
In the Yahoo News/YouGov poll, most black Americans said they were more worried about police brutality against minorities than about local crime and thought the Minneapolis City Council’s pledge to dismantle their police was a “good idea.” They also favored “gradually redirecting police funding toward increasing the number of social workers, drug counselors and mental health experts responsible for responding to non-violent emergencies.”
What this is really about is prioritizing communal safety, valuing human flourishing, and desiring policy solutions not predicated on state-sanctioned anti-black violence — consider this the third way.
The false binary of more or less policing, popular among both Democrats and Republicans, artificially narrows the possibilities for public policy.
The problem with polling
As political factions seize on favored polling positions, creating a simplistic — or even misrepresentative — view of black Americans’ beliefs, there’s a problem even more fundamental: Surveys fail to measure attitudes toward complex policy solutions because they don’t poll for them.
Surveys fail to wrestle with “the myriad ways in which American racism narrowed the options available to black citizens and elected officials in their fight against crime,” as Pulitzer Prize-winning author and civil rights attorney James Forman Jr. described it. Or, as Yale Law School professor Emily Bazelon recently suggested in the New York Times, surveys show black people supporting police hiring “partly because they don’t see the government providing other resources for making their neighborhoods safe.”
Today, however, as the Black Lives Matter movement rises in popular opinion, and policymakers reckon with racism, this more-or-less policing dichotomy starts to fall apart.
A close review of innovative research from Johns Hopkins and Yale University’s Portals Policing Project and Black Futures Lab’s Black Census Project broadly indicates that black people desire more community investment alternatives, more police transparency and accountability, and an end to police racism and brutality. In other words, they want a systemic, nuanced, and meliorating approach — not an either/or.
The optical illusion of black people’s unwavering support for police
If you squint hard enough, it’s possible to view black posture on policing as mildly frustrated but generally supportive. Indeed, review polls of black citizens, orders from black mayors, bills of black legislators, or the platform of black voters’ preferred presidential candidate and you will repeatedly find approval for the police, and requests for more policing.
This isn’t new. In 2015, even after the uprisings against police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, a Gallup poll found black citizens were 20 percent more likely than white Americans to say that they wanted more police officers, and they were 23 percent less likely than white Americans to say that they had enough police officers currently.
Likewise, a 2018-2019 poll conducted by Vox and Civis Analytics found that most black people wanted more police in their neighborhood. As Ezra Klein summarized:
What that polling found was, it’s true, for instance, African Americans have a less favorable view of local police, but it’s still very favorable. So white people have a 79% favorable view of the local police, Hispanic 77%, and black people 58%. And even given that the numbers are very close in terms of when you pull the different groups on whether or not they want to see more police officers hired into their communities. So among white people, 65% say they support that and 13% oppose it; among Hispanic folks, 64% supported and 13% oppose it. And among black people, 60% supported and 18% opposed it. So it is a little bit less popular in black communities, but not that much.
This positive stance toward policing is borne out in the preferences of black elected officials like Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser, who has become symbolic of black mayors who push back against calls to defund the police. Last week, Bowser said she was “not at all” reconsidering police funding amid activists’ calls to shift budget priorities. Likewise, Rep. James Clyburn, the highest-ranking black member in Congress and a civil rights activist, said on CNN’s State of the Union Sunday, “nobody is going to defund the police.”
Similarly, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who has the overwhelming support of black voters, opposes defunding the police and instead suggested reforms like training officers to shoot somebody in the leg as opposed to in the heart.
This backing for pro–policing policy, among black lawmakers and their allies, is decades old. They overwhelmingly supported President Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, which put 100,000 more police on American streets with more punitive policing methods. As Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor explains in From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, “Black mayors, including the mayors of Detroit, Atlanta, and Cleveland, pressured the CBC to vote for the legislation. They wrote to the chair of the caucus, Kweisi Mfume, urging him to support the legislation.”
Taylor writes that “In the end, the majority of the CBC voted for the bill, including liberal luminaries like John Conyers and former Black Panther Bobby Rush.”
It’s possible to interpret black people’s views of police as generally favorable. However, that interpretation would be based on the assumption that mainstream indicators of political attitude adequately and accurately capture the full complexity of opinions of black people — people who, despite Biden’s musings, typically want to be shot in neither the heart nor the leg.
Black officials are imperfect indicators of black opinion
There are many potential shortcomings in relying on traditional forms of political opinion to interpret black attitudes. Black legislative officials are shown to disproportionately underrepresent the opinions of heavily policed, high-segregation areas.
Political scientists like Emory’s Andra Gillespie have argued that the electoral constraints of black politicians for winning in cosmopolitan, multiracial districts often require neglecting “the most socially marginal members of the black community.” In her book The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America which examines some of the tensions of “middle-class black representation of poor black constituents,” Gillespie contends that “the same forces that discouraged black leaders from addressing controversial problems in black communities also created opportunities for deracialized political candidates to gain political currency.”
In practice, this means ambitious black officials shy way from third-rail topics like racialized police brutality and the social ills of segregation.
Moreover as, James Forman Jr. notes in Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, these middle-class and “elite” black Americans often do not bear the brunt of aggressive criminal justice policy. Lower-income black people do. Therefore, the class differences often create a disconnect between the policing experiences of lower-income black people and the policy preferences of the middle-class black officials who represent them.
Taylor also drills in on this point, explaining how civil rights-era class divisions led to a breakdown in representation for low-income black people. “As more blacks entered the middle class, political demands shifted. Black elected officials were more in tune with the needs of their middle-class constituencies, black and white, than they were with the needs of the black working class.”
This is crucial because black people are overwhelmingly working class. The median household income for a black family hovers around $41,000.
Both Taylor and Forman note that black people, especially working-class ones, favor a less punitive and more comprehensive approach to crime reduction. This is what Forman describes as the “all-of-the-above strategy” that includes support for police, courts, and prisons but also fixes joblessness, poverty, and segregation — generally speaking, the root causes of crime. Despite requesting both, American public policy has acted on black support for “tough on crime” policies but not on the social welfare policies, though if they had their druthers, polling suggests black people would choose the latter.
According to the Race, Crime, and Public Opinion poll cited in a 2014 Sentencing Project report, researchers found that “white Americans are also more likely than African Americans to endorse the use of the criminal justice system over other social policy tools to reduce crime.”
“When asked how best to reduce crime, 35% of whites said by investing in education and job training (versus 58% of blacks), 10% said by investing in police and prisons (versus 1% of blacks), and 45% said through both means (versus 35% of blacks),” researchers found.
So while many popular mainstream black elected officials unequivocally support police budgets, these positions more and more can fall out of lockstep with the black constituents who interface with the most aggressive policing on a day-to-day basis.
What polls capture, and what they miss
Polling does capture black people’s discontent with police racism and impunity. According to a 2019 Pew survey, “84% of black adults said that, in dealing with police, blacks are generally treated less fairly than whites; 63% of whites said the same.” The survey also found that “Black adults are about five times as likely as whites to say they’ve been unfairly stopped by police because of their race or ethnicity (44% vs. 9%).”
Similarly, a 2016 Pew survey found that “Black Americans are far less likely than whites to give high police marks for the way they do their jobs.” In the poll, “only about a third of black adults said that police in their community did an ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ job in using the right amount of force (33%, compared with 75% of whites), treating racial and ethnic groups equally (35% vs. 75%), and holding officers accountable for misconduct (31% vs. 70%).”
Last year, the Black Census Project polled more than 30,000 black people (likely the largest poll of black people since Reconstruction) and found similar results. “The vast majority of Black Census respondents see the excessive use of force by police officers (83 percent) and police officers killing Black people (87 percent) as problems in the community,” the study read.
The polling also found “nearly three-quarters of respondents (73 percent) agree that holding police officers responsible for the misconduct would improve police-community relations, while 60 percent favor requiring police officers to wear body cameras.”
However, while polls communicate black people’s frustration with policing, their methodology and conventions limit their ability to assess black attitudes. As noted by the Black Census pollsters, their staff had to reformulate the way they conducted their survey to accommodate for mistakes regularly made in polling of black people. This included finding ways to distribute polls to people who did not have internet access, were incarcerated, or otherwise were marginalized.
These hurdles and others are why ethnographies and other long-term interviewing techniques are crucial to understanding marginalized black people, who are not regularly the focus of policymaking, and their opinions on policing.
Multidisciplinary research suggests black people wrestle with existential questions about policing
Political surveys can often be shallow. They represent a single snapshot in time. Often they fail to reach the right people altogether. As written in the Black Census Project, traditional probabilistic survey samples misstate black attitudes “as traditional methods can exclude important information about communities that are under-represented.”
More to the point, Johns Hopkins’s political scientist and sociologist Vesla Mae Weaver argues, “current research on policed population is totally inadequate to help us understand how the residents of neighborhoods like Michael Brown’s are that are characterized by saturation policing, come to understand how police authority is experienced, and how policing is shaping the political thought and action of communities where it’s concentrated.”
Weaver set out to address the survey’s shortcomings in her Policing Portals Project. Working with a team of faculty, PhD candidates, and students from Johns Hopkins and Yale University, researchers “amassed over 850 conversations across 14 neighborhoods in six cities – the most extensive collection of first-hand accounts of policing to date.” The conversations took place at the researchers’ “portals” — trailers that had been converted into art installations where community members could livestream a conversation with a resident living in another highly police-community. Over three years, 2,000 Americans discussed their experiences with the police in places like Ferguson, Baltimore, and central Brooklyn. The findings are striking.
Black citizens repeatedly expressed concerns about the political legitimacy of their local police. In the research published based on these conversations, the authors wrote that often, “participants characterize police as contradictory — everywhere when surveilling people’s everyday activity and nowhere if called upon to respond to serious harm.” Locals also “report that their experience of government bears little resemblance to official governance or written law.”
Analyzing discussions between black participants, Weaver, along with Boston University’s Spencer Piston and Yale’s Gwen Prowse, emphasizes that “the dialogues we trace here should be seen within their broader historical context, part of the decades-long ‘stunning challenge to the legitimacy of state power in Black communities’.”
These concerns about the political legitimacy of police are difficult to capture in analyzing in polling or black politicians’ statements alone. This same sentiment was articulated by Ta-Nehisi Coates on a recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show.
“I think, among a large swath to a majority of black people in this country, the police are illegitimate. They’re not seen as a force that necessarily causes violent crime to decline,” Coates said. “Oftentimes, you see black people resorting to the police because they have no other option, but they’re not seen with the level of trust that maybe Americans in other communities bestow upon the police. They know you could be a victim to lethal force because you used a $20 bill that may or may not have been counterfeit, because you were asleep at night in your home and somebody got a warrant to kick down your door without knocking.”
Weaver’s research traces the origins of police abuse and legitimacy to early adolescence, noting that many black interview participants “reported being very early in their adolescents when they had their first encounter with police authority. The emotional force of minority youths’ first experience of the police baptizes them in a way supplying a visceral and lasting memory of the state exerting power over their bodies.”
This christening of black youth is similarly noted in the research of California State University sociologist Jan Haldipur, author of No Place on the Corner: The Costs of Aggressive Policing. He says that based on a multi-year study of stop-and-frisk in the South Bronx, “sustained negative police interaction can fundamentally reshape someone’s worldview.”
“For young people, and I think this is a point worth emphasizing, negative police encounters can be extremely traumatic experiences, even when excessive force is not used,” Haldipur said in an interview. “They can be a source of stress. They are a source of anxiety. It can feel overwhelming. It can change the way you look at the state and these institutions that are supposed to protect you.”
“It’s sort of this idea of, do they really have my best interests in mind, and at a young age, it forces people to critically evaluate these systems,” he told me.
In his book, Haldipur writes that this aggressive policing erodes “faith in both local and state institutions.”
This finding that black people view poor policing as an aspect of a broader state failure to provide adequate public goods and services comports with the research done by Forman and others that suggests black people regularly demand a more comprehensive policy solution. The Sentencing Project polling finding black people preferring investment to more policing bolsters this.
As Vanita Gupta, former head of the US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, said of her interviews during their investigations in Baltimore following the uprising:
When I went to Baltimore to investigate policing for the Justice Department, after Freddie Gray died from injuries he got in police custody, in every community meeting that I went to, folks were not just talking to me about concerns about police abuse. They wanted the Justice Department to fix the schools, to fix public transportation so they could get to their jobs more easily. Policing problems — police violence, over-policing — were often the tip of the spear.
In terms of crime reduction policy, black people often support comprehensive reforms, emphasizing the need for development, education, and more democratic control. The complexities of the lived experiences of black people, particularly those living in violent neighborhoods, might not lend themselves to simple slogans, but in broad strokes, research on black opinions paints a radically different picture from the ones Americans currently inhabit. Such a world is one in which black people have full employment, quality schools, reliable public transit, health care, and local democratic control of safety and emergency services.