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Policing, Protests, Surveillance, and White Racial Identity
Aaron Griffith, Th.D., Ashley Jardina, Christophe Ringer, Ph.D., Saher Selod, Ph.D.,

As a part of the PRRI Public Fellows program, our cohort of scholars who study white supremacy and racial justice created and deployed a survey via YouGov based on our shared research interests in racial and religious identities, crime, policing, and surveillance. We examined which groups were more likely to exhibit high levels of trust in the police, who supported increased surveillance of Muslims, who believe that protesting is associated with criminality, and how whites with a stronger sense of racial identity viewed these issues. Our survey data, gathered with the support of PRRI funding, reveal which groups are more likely to support policing and surveillance.

Attitudes on Protest and Criminality

In the 1960s, Barry Goldwater created an enduring ideological legacy by casting those who protest for racial and social justice as lawbreakers. This supposed causal link between social protest and criminality soon became influential. In 1969, Newsweek ran an article titled “The Troubled American: A Special Report on the White Majority,” which reported that 85% of whites thought Black militants were getting off too easy, 65% thought that unemployed Blacks were more likely than unemployed whites to get government aid, and 66% thought the police should be given more power.

Our survey data offer an opportunity to find out if these ideas are still influential today. The recent protests associated with the killing of George Floyd and the recent uptick in crime provide an important opportunity to examine this question. We find that 32% of white respondents indicated that the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder resulted in more crime, compared with 22% of Black respondents. In addition, 46% of Black respondents felt there was neither more or less crime than before the protests, whereas 34% of whites felt that way. When asked if crime should be addressed by more investment in social services, 42% of Black respondents indicated that a great deal more investment was necessary, compared with 30% of white respondents. One in five white respondents (20%) and 15% of Black respondents said the funding should stay the same.

Although the narrative of the George Floyd protests leading to more crime does not hold up to scrutiny, our survey indicates that Goldwater-era framing has endured. As a result, the ideological link between protests and increases in crime appears consistently in the media in recent years under the banner of the “Ferguson effect” or the “Minneapolis effect.

Trust in Police

In the aftermath of 2020’s nationwide protests following highly publicized police killings of African Americans, many communities in the United States have had intense debates about the role of law enforcement. Some Americans have argued for reforming police departments, defunding them, or even abolishing them altogether. Others have voiced support for the policing profession and indicated a desire to see departments retain high levels of funding (particularly as crime rates have risen in certain parts of the country in 2021 and 2022).

When we asked survey participants about their views on police funding, 35% of white Americans believed public spending on police departments should stay about the same. About half were in favor of increases, with 25% saying public funding should be increased a little and 24% saying it should be increased a lot. Only 15% wanted to decrease funding (7% saying it should be decreased a little, and 8% saying it should be decreased a lot). Among Black Americans, 43% wanted spending to remain about the same. 21% believed it should be increased a little, and 18% said it should be increased a lot. Only 17% wanted a decrease (8% wanted it decreased a little, and 9% wanted it decreased a lot).

These results show that Black and white Americans’ views on law enforcement funding are fairly closely aligned. Though fewer Black Americans wanted funding increases overall and more were supportive of the funding status quo compared with white Americans, support for decreasing police funding was only two percentage points higher among Blacks than among whites. This finding fits with larger historical trends scholars have noted regarding Black Americans’ support of law enforcement and their concerns about crime and drugs, even as they showcase higher degrees of skepticism about issues of racism and misconduct among law enforcement and about the broader fairness of the criminal justice system. The finding possibly also reflects ongoing concerns about rising crime rates and the softening of more critical sentiments regarding police, which were elevated in 2020 (a dynamic that other recent polling on police confidence has measured).

Surveillance of Muslims

Attention to crime and policing in the United States often centers on Black and white Americans, but issues related to race, religion, and the police state also extend to the surveillance of Muslims in the country. More than 20 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which spurred increased Islamophobia, we are interested in understanding contemporary attitudes toward Muslims and, in particular, public opinion about the surveillance of this group. Survey data from recent years show that attitudes toward Muslims have improved, particularly among Republican and independent voters.

In the data we collected, we find a notable racial divide in support for surveilling Muslims. Whites were more likely to say that they saw Muslims as either an extreme or moderate threat (26%) compared with Black respondents (16%). White respondents were also more likely to somewhat or strongly oppose Muslim immigration (34%) compared with Black respondents (21%). Though Black respondents seem to have more favorable views of Muslims in general, when it comes to FBI monitoring of mosques for terrorist activities, Black (39%) and white (39%) respondents showed similar levels of support (including both strong and moderate support).

The partisan divides are larger. About one in ten Democrats (11%) view Muslims as an extreme or moderate threat, compared with 44% of Republicans. Similarly, 13% of Democrats somewhat or strongly oppose Muslim immigration, compared with 47% of Republicans. Additionally, more Republicans (49%) than Democrats (30%) support the FBI monitoring mosques for terrorist activity. Thus, our analysis reveals that Democrats tend to have more favorable attitudes toward Muslims and are more opposed to surveilling them. Participants whose religious identity is extremely important to them are more likely to strongly or somewhat support the FBI monitoring mosques (54%) than those whose religious identity is not at all important (24%).

On the surface, the data show that Republican, white, and religious individuals are more likely to see Muslims as a threat, but we find that support for surveillance is generally high among all the groups we surveyed — for example, a non-trivial 30% of Democrats support surveilling mosques. While a lot of attention is focused on policing, the connections between local law enforcement in the War on Drugs and federal law enforcement in the War on Terror and racial identity require more attention from scholars and policy makers. When police departments apply for and receive funds that were made available by counterterrorism policies, we need to pay close attention to what programs are created with these grants and how they may target various racialized groups.

How Whiteness Moderates These Attitudes

Finally, we also examined how whites with higher levels of racial consciousness felt about crime, policing, and the surveillance of Muslims. The term “racial consciousness” is used here to describe a confluence of beliefs held by some whites, including a sense of identity with their racial group, a belief that their racial group is losing out to racial and ethnic minorities, and a desire for members of their racial group to work together politically on behalf of the group’s interests.

Attention to whites with this sense of solidarity has grown in recent years, as demographic changes, the election of Donald Trump, and the growing significance of race in public discourse have brought white-backlash politics to the fore. Prior work finds that whites with higher levels of racial consciousness tend to have distinct political preferences. They are more likely to support policies that they believe will benefit their racial group, and they’re more likely to see racial and ethnic out-groups as threatening. Given the strong link in the United States between racial attitudes and beliefs about crime, we explored whether whites with different levels of racial consciousness had different beliefs about policing, crime, and surveillance.

To measure racial consciousness, our survey of whites included questions developed by Ashley Jardina: “How important is being white to your identity?”; “How likely is it that whites are unable to find a job because employers are hiring minorities instead?”; and “How important is it that whites work together to change laws that are unfair to whites?” We averaged responses to these questions together into a single measure of white racial consciousness. We consider whites above the midpoint of the scale to have high levels of consciousness and those with scores below the midpoint to have low levels of consciousness. Approximately a third of whites in the United States (33%) have moderate to high levels of consciousness.

We find notable differences in whites’ perception of crime in the United States according to levels of racial consciousness. The vast majority of whites with high levels of consciousness (78%) believe that crime is a major problem, compared to only about half of whites low on consciousness (49%). Whites with higher levels of racial consciousness (51%) are, however, only somewhat more inclined than those with low levels of consciousness (43%) to see crime as a problem in their own communities.

The majority of racially conscious whites (74%) also believe that overall crime is increasing significantly in the United States, compared with just 39% of whites with moderate to low levels of racial consciousness.

Whites with differing levels of racial consciousness also have different beliefs about the strategies communities should use to address crime. Whites with high levels of racial consciousness are more likely to say that communities should address crime by investing more in police departments (84%). A much smaller percentage of whites with high racial consciousness (54%) propose that communities should solve crime problems by investing more in social services. White Americans who have lower levels of racial consciousness, in contrast, tend to prefer investing in social services (75%) over investing in policing (54%).

Finally, we find that more than half of whites with high racial consciousness (55%) are likely to see Muslims as a moderate or extreme threat. Only approximately 12% of whites with low racial consciousness reported feeling similarly. In fact, most of these whites (70%) indicated that they see Muslims as either little or no threat at all.

Unsurprisingly, racially conscious whites are also highly supportive of FBI monitoring of mosques: 69% of racially conscious whites somewhat or strongly support this monitoring, compared with only 24% of whites who do not share this solidarity with their racial group.