Black voters think most Americans simply do not care about urban gun violence, according to a new phone survey by a prominent Democratic polling firm. But for them, it’s a crucial issue – and a more serious one than police misconduct.
In a February poll, 80% of the registered black voters surveyed described gun violence in communities of color as an “extremely serious” problem, compared with only 50% who called police misconduct an “extremely serious” problem, and 69% who called the incarceration rate an “extremely serious” problem.
The majority of the 600 registered black voters surveyed said they believed that most police officers are professionals who do the right thing, and that only a few “bad apple” officers discriminate based on race. But nearly one in four said they believed that racism is a pervasive problem in policing, and that “most police officers in America discriminate and profile on the basis of race”.
The poll found that registered Latino voters viewed both gun violence and police misconduct as much less serious problems than African American voters, with only half judging gun violence as a “extremely serious” problem, 24% seeing police misconduct as an “extremely serious” problem, and 15% believing that “most police officers in America discriminate and profile on the basis of race.” Only 45% of Hispanic registered voters thought that most other Americans did not care about gun violence in communities of color.
80% of Hispanic registered voters said that they believed that police make their communities safer. In contrast, 62% of African Americans agreed with that statement.
The poll, conducted by the Benenson Strategy Group, the firm of Barack Obama’s campaign pollster, was commissioned by the Joyce Foundation, the Urban Institute, and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, as part of a new report on the intersection of gun violence prevention and police and criminal justice reform in communities of color.
A similar online survey conducted by YouGov, a research firm, found African Americans more narrowly divided when asked to choose which they felt was “a bigger problem”: violence within the black community or racial injustice in the criminal justice system.
42% of black Americans said violence within the black community, “often known as ‘black on black crime’,” was the bigger problem, while 36% chose racial injustice in the criminal justice system. The margin of error in the poll was 4.4%.
White respondents in the YouGov poll, in contrast, overwhelmingly said violence within the black community was the bigger problem, with 71% choosing that option, versus only 17% saying racism within criminal justice was a more serious problem.
As enormous protests over police violence and racism have played out across the country in the past year and a half, white conservative commentators have repeatedly suggested that African Americans should care more about violence within the black community than about incidents where police officers kill unarmed black citizens.
The results of the Benenson poll suggest that, in fact, many registered black voters do see gun violence as a more serious problem than police violence, though they see both as serious problems.
In total, 91% of African Americans saw gun violence as a serious or extremely serious problem, and only 1% saw it as not a problem at all.
In contrast, 69% saw police misconduct as a serious or extremely serious problem, 20% saw it as a problem halfway between “not serious” and “extremely serious” and only 3% saw it as not a problem at all.
Conservative pundits who criticize black Americans for putting too much emphasis on police violence often fail to recognize the existence of ongoing gun violence prevention efforts in communities of color.
“The danger to a black child in America is not a white police officer. That’s going to happen less than one percent of the time,” former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani said in a widely criticized interview in 2014. “The danger to a black child – if it was my child – the danger is another black.”
“Blacks are basically killing other blacks, and these people are spending millions and millions of dollars demonstrating. They have every right to do it. Why don’t they spend an equal amount of time trying to figure out that horrendous crime problem that exists?”
Giuliani’s comments made no reference to the $12.7m New York City had invested just three months before to expand a gun violence prevention program in neighborhoods of color, or the dozens of New York City organizations focused on the problem.
Michael McBride, an Oakland pastor and the leader of Live Free, a faith-based campaign to end the mass criminalization of black and brown Americans, said it was “not surprising” that African Americans in the survey saw gun violence as a more extreme problem than police misconduct.
“Gun violence is the most disruptive and traumatic expression of human misery,” he said.
He saw the two problems as deeply connected. “Police violence is still a terrible concern, because if half the community believes the police aren’t there to protect them, it breeds lawlessness. We need constitutional policing to ensure public safety.”
At a Thursday press conference, Joel Benenson, the polling firm’s CEO, said it was “disturbing” that 57% of African Americans – and 64% of African Americans 18 to 29 years old – believe that most other Americans do not care about gun violence in their communities.
“That is a staggering statistic,” he said. “There is an epidemic of gun violence in communities of color, and the people who live in those communities believe that most Americans don’t care.”
Violence, incarceration and police mistreatment were personal issues for many of the 600 African Americans surveyed in the Benenson poll. Roughly 40% – and 48% of younger voters aged 18 to 29 – said they or someone close to them had been affected by gun violence. 75% said they personally knew someone who had been incarcerated.
More than 80% said they “frequently worry about interactions between the police and young men of color”. More than half said they or someone close to them had had a negative interaction with law enforcement.
Both African American and Hispanic registered voters expressed overwhelming support for requiring background checks on all gun sales, including sales online and at gun shows, with more than 92% of African Americans and 94% of Hispanics supporting or strongly supporting the policy.
More than 80% of African Americans and the majority of Hispanics supported increased funding for support services for people returning home from prisons; more community investment in mental health, job training and youth programs; stronger accountability measures for police departments, including body cameras for police officers; and requirements that citizens report lost or stolen guns to the police.
The majority of both African Americans and Hispanics agreed that having a gun in the home was more likely to protect people there than to be used to harm someone, either accidentally or on purpose. But they also agreed that the proliferation of guns on the street was related to police-community tensions, with 61% of African Americans and 59% of Hispanics agreeing that “fewer guns on the street would improve the relationship between the police and the communities they serve”.
In an email, Benenson said the voters’ prioritization of gun violence as an extremely serious problem reflected their “nuanced view” of the relationship between black Americans and the police.
“They see police misconduct as a serious problem and they worry about interactions between police and young men of color, but they also see the police as making communities safer,” he said.
Benenson wrote that “there’s no reason to believe” that the opinions of black Americans who were not registered voters would be significantly different.
In the Thursday press conference, Benenson noted there was a striking and consistent difference between Hispanics and African Americans when it came to their levels of concern about both police interactions and gun violence. He said that African Americans’ levels of concern about these issues might be the result of the structural racism that African Americans face or other differences between the African American and immigrant experiences.
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