Home > Press Releases > Deep Divide Between Black and White Americans on Criminal Justice System’s Racial Equality; Persists from Rodney King to Freddie Gray
Deep Divide Between Black and White Americans on Criminal Justice System’s Racial Equality; Persists from Rodney King to Freddie Gray

New survey finds striking partisan differences: 65 percent of Republicans believe recent killings of black men by police are isolated incidents; 61 percent of Democrats see a broad pattern

WASHINGTON – In the wake of protests following Freddie Gray’s death while in Baltimore police custody, a new survey released today finds a nearly 30-percentage point gap between black and white Americans’ perceptions of the fairness within the criminal justice system. Only 17 percent of black Americans agree that blacks and other minorities receive the same treatment as whites do in the criminal justice system, compared to 78 percent who disagree. By contrast, white Americans are nearly evenly divided—46 percent agree vs. 47 percent disagree. Looking at trends on this issue, the new survey shows that racial perception gaps today are only slightly smaller than those measured in 1992 by an ABC News/Washington Post poll at the time of the protests and riots that followed the Rodney King verdict. The new survey also finds that white Americans are nearly four times as likely as black Americans to say that police officers treat people equally (47 percent vs. 12 percent).

The PRRI Religion & Politics Tracking Survey was conducted by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). The nationwide survey of 1,003 adults was conducted from April 29 to May 3, 2015. The survey measures public awareness of the protests and riots in Baltimore that followed the death of Freddie Gray as well as opinion on the treatment of black Americans and other minorities by police officers and the criminal justice system as a whole.

The survey finds substantial differences by religion, party, and race in perceptions of whether recent killings of black men are isolated incidents or part of a broader pattern.

“The Southern Baptist Convention recently announced that they are making racial reconciliation a priority, but this survey shows just how long that road may be for white evangelical Protestants,” said Dr. Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute. “White evangelicals are less likely than other religious group to believe that black Americans are treated unfairly by police or the criminal justice system, and few see any connections between the recent deaths of black men at the hands of police. There is a clear disconnect between the white evangelical community and black America.”

Close to six in ten (57 percent) white evangelical Protestants say that recent killings of black men are isolated incidents, a view shared by fewer white mainline Protestants (47 percent) and white Catholics (50 percent). More than six in ten religiously unaffiliated Americans (61 percent) and seven in ten minority Protestants (70 percent) say that such killings by police are part of a broader pattern.

“Democrats and Republicans understand the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray in dramatically different ways,” said Daniel Cox, Research Director of Public Religion Research Institute. “Where Democrats see a pattern, Republicans see a series of isolated incidents. These deep partisan divisions will almost certainly be reflected in the way each party assesses issues within the criminal justice system.”

Nearly two-thirds of Republicans (65 percent) say that the killings are isolated incidents. In contrast, more than six in ten (61 percent) Democrats say that the killings represent a broader trend. Black Americans are much more likely than white Americans to see the recent killings of black men as part of a broader pattern: 74 percent vs. 43 percent, respectively.

More than two-thirds (68 percent) of Americans say they have heard a lot about the protest demonstrations and riots in Baltimore. Familiarity with the events in Baltimore varied significantly by racial background. Close to nine in ten (87 percent) black Americans say that they heard a lot about the protests, compared to 69 percent of white and 52 percent of Hispanic Americans. Nearly four in ten (39 percent) Americans say that the recent killings of black men by police in Ferguson, Mo., New York City, and Baltimore were isolated incidents. Close to half (49 percent) of the public says that these deaths were part of a broader pattern.

Read the report.

Read topline questionnaire, including survey methodology.


The survey was designed and conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). Bilingual (Spanish and English) telephone interviews were conducted among a random sample of 1,003 adults 18 years of age or older between April 29 and May 3, 2015. Five hundred respondents were interviewed on a cell phone. The sample is designed to represent the total U.S. adult population and includes respondents from all 50 states. The margin of error for the survey is +/- 3.7 percentage points at the 95 percent level of confidence.

Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization specializing in research at the intersection of religion, values, and public life.