For PRRI’s annual American Values Survey 2014, data was collected, in part, during one of the biggest tragedies—and media events—of the year: the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Such timing provided PRRI with unique insight into how Americans feel about racial inequality in the criminal justice system.
Before the shooting, 38 percent of the country believed black Americans and other minorities receive treatment equal to that of whites in the criminal justice system; after the events in Ferguson, 36 percent said the same. There are stark differences along racial lines, however. Among white Americans, the belief that blacks and other minorities receive equal treatment in the criminal justice system did not change significantly. Among non-whites, this belief plummeted 13 percentage points, from 29 to 16 percent.
Overall, Americans’ confidence in the criminal justice system’s equal treatment of racial and ethnic minorities has dropped significantly. Today, over half (56 percent) of Americans disagree that black Americans and other minorities receive the same treatment as white Americans in the criminal justice system. Just one year ago, the public was evenly divided, with nearly half (47 percent) the public agreeing that all Americans in the criminal justice system receive equal treatment regardless of race; 47 percent disagree.
Among non-whites, the belief about equal treatment has never been high. Last year, 55 percent of Hispanics and 74 percent of black Americans thought the criminal justice system was racially unjust; this year, those numbers have risen to 60 percent and 84 percent, respectively.
But what about “reverse discrimination,” or discrimination against white Americans? A majority (52 percent) of white Americans believe that discrimination against whites has become as big of a problem as discrimination against minorities. Majorities of white Republicans (61 percent) and white Tea Party members (73 percent) say discrimination against whites has become as big of a problem as discrimination against black Americans and other minorities.