Following a summer of race-related turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri, Americans of all backgrounds are more likely to see the criminal justice system as racially biased, according to a just-released annual survey by the Public Religion Research Institute on the economy, politics, race, and religion.
Americans remain divided on questions of race and discrimination, despite a notable shift in their perceptions of the criminal justice system. In 2013, Americans were evenly split on the question of whether the criminal justice system was racially biased; in 2014 a majority say it is. The change is driven by shifts across all the demographic groups surveyed.
The results are based on 4,507 telephone interviews conducted in English and Spanish between July 21 and Aug. 15.
A slim majority of whites, 51%, now said they believe the criminal justice system is biased — a smaller percentage than blacks (84%) and Latinos (60%) who said it is, according to the survey.
Majorities identifying as Republicans, tea party members, and and the elderly said they see the criminal justice system as fair, according to the survey. Fifty-seven percent of Republicans and 58% of tea party members said they believe the criminal justice system does not discriminate on the basis of race.
Perceptions about the criminal justice system aside, however, Americans' perceptions of race and discrimination more broadly break down along racial lines. About as many white Americans who said they think the criminal justice system is racially biased against minorities also believe that anti-white discrimination is as big a problem as discrimination against minorities.
Fifty-two percent of white Americans believe that "discrimination against white Americans has become as big a problem as discrimination against black Americans and other minorities, compared to 35% of Hispanics and 29% of black Americans," according to the survey. Sixty-one percent of Republicans and 73% of tea party members said discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks — compared to only 32% of Democrats and 47% of Independents.
Interestingly, while Republicans are more likely to say that discrimination against whites is as bad as discrimination against other minorities, a majority report their financial health as being "good" or "excellent." By contrast, the survey finds that "only about 4-in-10 independents (37%), Democrats (39%), and those identifying with the Tea Party (40%) say they are either in excellent or good financial shape."
Whites and Asian-Americans are more likely to say they are doing well; Latinos and blacks are more likely to report financial hardship.
Among whites, racial perceptions differ greatly along class lines. Fifty percent of working-class white Americans said that the criminal justice system doesn't discriminate, and fifty-eight percent believe discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against racial minorities. Those numbers are roughly reversed for college-educated whites.
The simple explanation for that may be that working-class whites are more likely to report financial hardship, and more likely to come in contact with the criminal justice system, and so less likely to see racial disparities as the result of a vast legacy of racial discrimination against blacks.
Whatever the reason, Americans' perceptions of racial inequality cleave along racial lines — except when it comes to criminal justice, where they have slowly begun to converge.