For the longest time, it’s been widely noted that polls tend to send two unusually strange and related messages: First, Americans’ views of their own personal situations, and of the national situation, often differ tremendously; and second, the first is much brighter than the second.
So for instance, poll respondents can dismiss Congress as a bunch of incompetent crooks, yet voters keep reelecting their own representatives – in the most important poll of all. They can condemn America’s healthcare system as a mess, but make clear how much they like their own coverage.
But familiar as I am with this pattern, I was stunned to see it appear in a Thursday Gallup poll about African Americans and their encounters with the police.
Taken on their own, the findings seemed narrative-busting enough. The Gallup headline was pretty par for the recent course: “For Black Americans, 41% of Police Encounters Not Positive.” That’s hardly confirmation of the apparently emerging conventional wisdom that American law enforcement is plagued by systemic racism.
After all, even the downbeat wording of the header suggests that 59 percent of these encounters have been positive for African Americans. The actual results are even more surprising, given how systemic the systemic charge has become. Specifically, 73 percent of African Americans polled reported that during their “interactions with police,” they were “treated with respect.” And 74 percent said they were “treated fairly.”
To be sure, these percentages are lower than for whites (by 20 percentage points for the overall positive/non-positive assessment, by 17 percentage points when it comes to respect, and by 19 percentage points when it comes to fairness). But although these gaps are hardly trivial, all the readings are well into majority positivity, respect, and fairness territories. And even the finding that provides the most support for the systemic racism charge is kind of suspect when you think about it. After all, let’s say that any driver is stopped by a police car and (justly) ticketed for speeding. Whatever his or her race, what driver is likely to feel great about the experience?
And these findings also fit the broader polling pattern of individuals assessing their own personal situations as being better than relevant broader situations. For example, in early 2019 (i.e., not so long ago), Gallup reported that 77 percent of African Americans reported believing that “blacks in their community” are “treated less fairly than whites” in “dealing with the police, such as traffic incidents.” FYI, the questions were asked in 2018.
Moreover, not only does that finding clash pretty loudly with the results from this past Thursday about African Americans’ own personal experiences. It also clashes pretty loudly with the results from that same 2019 poll’s findings on African Americans’ own personal experiences. When asked “Can you think of any occasion in the last 30 days when you felt you were treated unfairly in the following places because you were black?”, only 21 percent of blacks answered “Yes.” Maybe the limited timeframe held down the “yes” responses for individuals. But if police racism really is systemic, you’d think that for the African American respondents as a whole, the time interval problem would fade away.
And here’s an interesting kicker: The 21 percent figure isn’t the all-time high recorded by Gallup. That came in 2004 – during George W. Bush’s Presidency.
Nor is Gallup the only polling organization to report a large gap between African Americans’ views on police racism generally, and on their own experiences with police. An April, 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that 84 percent of African Americans believe that “in general in our country these days, blacks are treated less fairly than whites in dealing with police.” But only 44 percent said they had been unfairly stopped by police.
None of this is to say that there are no racial issues in American law enforcement. After all, that 44 percent Pew figure doesn’t translate into “most,” but it’s still disturbingly high. My own personal conversations with black friends have helped convince me (despite my deep mistrust of the evidentiary value of anecdotes) that there is a tendency on the part of a non-negligible number of police officers across the country to view African American men in particular with special suspicion, and to act on these suspicions. South Carolina Republican Senator Tim Scott’s alleged experiences in this respect carry weight with me, too.
But recognizing the importance of these instances is a far cry from proving that American law enforcement as a whole is afflicted with systemic racism, however you define the term. And the Gallup and Pew results represent two more reasons for caution about this conclusion.