Study Shows Sharp Racial Divide In Reaction To Ferguson

A recent study by the Pew Research Center finds that there are stark racial divisions in reactions to the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Audie Cornish talks to Carroll Doherty, director of political research at Pew, for more.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The fatal shooting of Michael Brown and what's happened since have Americans sharply divided in their reactions according to a new study by the Pew Research Center. Among the findings, 80 percent of African-Americans believe the case raises important issues about race compared to only 37 percent of whites. Nearly half of whites surveyed said race is getting more attention than it deserves. For more on this study, we're joined by Carroll Doherty, director of political research at Pew. Welcome to the program.

CARROLL DOHERTY: Nice to be here.

CORNISH: So let's begin with that wide racial gap we just mentioned. More than twice as many African Americans as whites believe this case raises important questions about race. And that disparity continues when you ask about people's views on the police response in Ferguson, as well?

DOHERTY: Absolutely, African Americans as are twice as likely as whites to say the police response has been excessive - 65 percent of blacks versus just 33 percent of whites. And you see in other attitudes, as well, about the investigation into Michael Brown's death.

CORNISH: Talk about those investigation numbers. What are people's views there?

DOHERTY: Seventy-six percent of blacks have very little or no confidence at all in the investigations. And 45 percent of blacks say they have no confidence at all. Among whites, you get a narrow majority saying they do have confidence - 52 percent. And just 33 percent say they have little or no confidence - so starkly different attitudes about this case along racial lines.

CORNISH: You know, people might be hearing this and think well this is pretty obvious, right? They may see that they have a very different opinion or interest from their neighbors. What's striking here?

DOHERTY: Well, I mean it's - first off, it's very similar to reactions to, you know, probably the most recent high-profile case that people remember, which is the death of Trayvon Martin. Again, blacks thought that case raised important issues about race that needed to be discussed. Whites, by and large, didn't. And it goes with some other attitudes. When we surveyed last year on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, we found that dealing with the police and dealing with the courts are the top areas where blacks feel like they're being treated unfairly. Seventy percent of blacks say blacks in their community are treated less fairly than whites by police. Sixty-eight percent say the same thing about the criminal justice system. Those are pretty powerful numbers. And while blacks see discrimination in a lot of areas, those are the ones that really stand out.

CORNISH: What, if anything, are you seeing that's striking in the numbers here when it comes to white Americans?

DOHERTY: Well, I think white Americans are conflicted about this. I mean, one of the interesting things here is reactions to the police response. Whites are divided about whether it's appropriate or inappropriate. You know, about the same percentage say it's OK - say it has gone too far.

CORNISH: This is response to protesters.

DOHERTY: Response to how the police have dealt with the protesters, correct. And a very large percentage of whites offer no opinion to this. Now, that may be because it's been - kind of been a moving target, you know? The police response has changed over the past few days. But it's also, I think, you know - maybe, people are somewhat uncomfortable about expressing their opinion about this.

CORNISH: You know, besides breaking this down along racial lines, you also looked at differences in reaction from Democrats and Republicans. And what did you find there?

DOHERTY: Well, the very interesting thing is that partisanship is as big factors races in some of these attitudes. I mean, for Republicans, this is not about race - 61 percent say race is getting too much attention in the Brown case. Democrats - almost - take the opposite view - 68 percent say more attention is needed to discuss racial issues in this case.

CORNISH: Obviously, there has been many stories in the past that have had this kind of racial divide - whether it's something as serious as the killings of Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown - but also the Harvard issue with Henry Gates and other kind of race stories that came to the forefront. What does the data show about that?

DOHERTY: Well, there's been a series of these stories all the way back to Rodney King and even the O.J. Simpson, which are, you know, kind of divided along racial lines both in terms of the interest in those stories and opinions about the cases involved. And so, you know, what may be surprising is how little things change over time. I mean, in some ways, this is something of a predictable response, to a degree, and we've seen it before and likely to see it again.

CORNISH: That's Carroll Doherty. He's director of political research at the Pew Research Center. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

DOHERTY: Thank you.

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