Trayvon Martin case: Polls reveal depth of racial divide

Two polls conducted after George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the death of Trayvon Martin reaffirm the dramatic divide between white and black Americans, including over whether the trial raised urgent issues.

James Nielsen/Houston Chronicle/AP
A protester carries a sign in the River Oaks community in Houston, Sunday, July 21. Dueling groups of protesters converged on the wealthy Houston neighborhood in reaction to last weekend's not-guilty verdict in the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin.

Two polls this week have reaffirmed that white and black Americans see the acquittal of George Zimmerman in very different lights.

The adjectives used to report the racial disparity these polls describe are telling: “dramatic,” “overwhelming,” “drastic.” Those used in comments on those reports, too, evoke a certain mood: “depressing,” “sobering,” “despair-inducing.”

These are only some of the reactions to Monday’s Pew Research Center poll that said 86 percent of black Americans express “dissatisfaction” with the verdict, compared with just 30 percent of whites. At the same time, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found a similar gap: 9 percent of blacks “approved” of the acquittal, compared with 51 percent of whites.

Indeed, the killing of Trayvon Martin and the jury’s not-guilty verdict has agitated deep-seated and long-standing emotions for many Americans, laying bare a sensile cultural rawness when it comes to matters of race. These polls come in the wake of weekend protests and demonstrations, battling memes posted on FaceBook and Twitter, and what some see as clichéd calls for a national “discussion on race.”

Yet some observers say such a stark disparity among the viewpoints of blacks and whites demands “some soul-searching,” as President Obama said in his candid remarks on the case last week.

Efforts by politicians to organize conversations on race have not been particularly productive, Mr. Obama said. “They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have.”

Even here there is a wide divide, however. Nearly 80 percent of blacks polled said the Trayvon Martin case raises important issues about race that need to be discussed, Pew reported. But just less than one-third of whites agreed.

But while whites are less likely to want to discuss matters of race – and many feel a sense of unease doing so – black Americans, as Obama said, “[are] looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that – that doesn’t go away.”

“We know that there is a long history, that the historical relationship between black people and law enforcement at the federal, state, and local level is contentious,” says Lester K. Spence, associate professor of political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “That’s why the gap exists.”

Such experiences inform reactions to the case, and help explain why 86 percent of African-Americans polled say blacks and other minorities do not receive equal treatment in the criminal justice system, according to The Washington Post/ABC News poll. Far fewer whites – 41 percent – say this is the case.

“White America believes the US is colorblind, and the extension of this belief system is that the rule of law is applied equally to everyone regardless of race,” says Dr. Charles Gallagher, chair of the sociology department at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “Black America’s experience with race-based discrimination, as President Obama pointed out, is not an academic discussion but a lived experience.”

Some of the disparity is also reflected in partisan differences among whites, however. Among white Republicans, 70 percent say they approve of the Zimmerman verdict, compared with only 30 percent of white Democrats, according to The Washington Post/ABC News poll. Among all white respondents, a third said the shooting was justified and a third said it was not. (The other third didn’t know enough to have an opinion.)

But many white and some black observers have argued that radically differing experiences within the criminal justice system simply reflect radically differing levels of crime among blacks and whites. This debate remains the focus of New York’s controversial stop-and-frisk laws, a tactic police use overwhelmingly in minority neighborhoods, but rarely in white neighborhoods.

“A number of my African American colleagues are like, well, what we should really be focusing on is black-on-black crime ... [because] what happened to him, what George Zimmerman did to him, happens very rarely in black communities,” says Mr. Spence.

“But what that approach neglects is the fact that it took a national level protest to get charges brought up, even. I mean, this is how insane it is: When Trayvon Martin was murdered, the police didn’t even look around the neighborhood to see if someone was missing a kid.” (The Florida jury found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder and found the killing a justified action of self-defense.)

As passions flare throughout the country, and the views of blacks and whites seem to reflect profoundly different experiences, there is a mixture of optimism and despair about conversations about race.

“I’m pretty dubious about it,” says David Mark, editor-in-chief of the online political site, Politix. “I think the best thing that can happen is people live their lives, they try to be open to people around them. But a lot of really hardened racial attitudes take generations to dissipate, and even with a lot of progress over the years, we’re far from where we want to be. But I don’t really think just talking about it is really going to help at all ­– in fact, it may open more wounds, and I just don’t know what can be done on a national scale about it.”

Others hope to heed the words of Obama, to be a little bit more honest, and to wring out as much bias as possible.

“What I’m saying is, as somebody who is white but hopefully concerned with the whole human mosaic, that we develop ... techniques to bring people together across lines of difference,” says Rev. Robert Chase, founding director of Intersections International, a Manhattan-based organization that works globally in the field of cross-cultural dialogue.

“We need to first acknowledge that these differences exist, and then see if we can hear one another’s personal stories and create a safe space so that we can share in conversations about personal experiences we might have,” Rev. Chase continues.

“We can find ways to honor those personal experiences and then seek common elements of our life together, so that we can move together in ways that promote harmony.”

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