Poll: Trayvon Martin case divides US by race, age, wealth, and politics

New polls show a distinct split in how Americans view the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Some groups, including blacks, women, and Democrats, are more likely to see race as a key factor.

Philip Sears/Reuters
Sevell Brown, director of the National Christian League of Councils, speaks at a rally for slain teen Trayvon Martin in Tallahassee, Fla., Wednesday. The date for the march was chosen to honor the 44th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Trayvon Martin case is dividing the country racially, generationally, politically, and by economic status.

That’s the finding of public opinion polls taken since the Feb. 26 killing of a black teenager by neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla.

“How Americans perceive this case is divided on several variables,” says Raghavan Mayur, president of TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence, which conducted a recent Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll. “A similar pattern emerges when asked if blacks should be concerned about racial profiling in predominantly white areas.”

For example, twice as many blacks and Hispanics as whites say race played a major role in the shooting death of Trayvon (73 to 36 percent). The Monitor/TIPP poll of 906 adults taken from March 30 to April 5 finds other disparities as well.

  • Younger respondents are more likely to see race as playing a major role in the case than those of middle age (66 to 43 percent).
  • Women more so than men (48 to 39 percent).
  • Those of modest income more than the wealthy (51 to 37 percent).
  • Democrats much more so than Republicans (64 to 32 percent).

Asked in this survey “to what extent should blacks be concerned about racial profiling by police or law enforcement in predominantly white areas,” 69 percent say to “a great” or “some” extent. Here too, younger respondents, women, blacks and Hispanics, and Democrats are more likely to see racial profiling as a problem.

A recent USA Today/Gallup poll finds similar results.

Given what’s known about the case, for example, blacks are more than twice as likely as nonblacks (72 to 32 percent) to believe that Mr. Zimmerman (who is white and Hispanic) is guilty of a crime in shooting Trayvon, according to an April 2-4 Gallup survey of 3,006 Americans.

“Blacks are paying much closer attention to the news of the incident; overwhelmingly believe that George Zimmerman … is guilty of a crime; believe that racial bias was a major factor in the events leading up to the shooting; and believe that Zimmerman would already have been arrested had the victim been white, not black,” writes Gallup editor in chief Frank Newport in an analysis of the findings.

The Pew Research Center finds similar racial and political differences in the extent to which Americans are paying attention to the unfolding story.

Blacks and Democrats are much more likely to be following the story than whites or Republicans, Pew finds, and whites and Republicans are much more likely to say there’s been too much coverage of Trayvon's death.

Some major corporations apparently are paying close attention to the Trayvon Martin story as well.

On Thursday, Kraft Foods Inc. joined Coca-Cola and Pepsico in pulling its membership from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

The ALEC is a conservative nonprofit policy organization whose major funders include billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch. It’s been associated with laws like Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law (allowing citizens to use deadly force rather than retreat in the face of a potentially life-threatening encounter) as well as with efforts to restrict voter registration – neither of which has much to do with the organization’s stated probusiness agenda.

Gallup’s Mr. Newport finds similarities between the Trayvon Martin case and that of O.J. Simpson in Los Angeles in 1995.

“The situation in the Trayvon Martin case is different from the Simpson situation, however, because the victim, rather than the alleged perpetrator, is black,” writes Newport. “Still, both situations, even though 17 years apart, apparently tap into the same deeply felt views of the average black American that the criminal justice system in America is biased against blacks.”

Other observers see the split in public opinion over Trayvon's shooting death in a troubling context.

“Half the nation, generally younger and more minority, believes a grave injustice has been done. The other half, generally older and whiter, believes that a mob led by professional agitators is trying to railroad Zimmerman for their own political purposes,” writes broadcaster Geraldo Rivera on the Fox News Latino website. “The case has fractured the country along the undeniable racial fault line that is always there, but is most apparent in charged cases like this and Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Ramarley Graham, Sean Bell and a hundred others.”

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