Indeed, while racial divides are real and significant, we are learning that Americans see ways to move forward, like strengthening rehabilitation and addressing systemic factors in education and economic opportunity that they believe contribute to criminal behavior.
February is Black History Month and we at Public Agenda took the opportunity to reflect on some of the work we have done regarding race relations. As we look back on the progress made, we’re learning more about where there’s room for improvement and where there are opportunities for Americans to grow together.
In 2015, Public Agenda embarked on a project with WNYC/New York Public Radio to learn more about how residents of New York City and the greater metropolitan area thought about public issues like education, taxes and housing costs. From this project we learned there are stark racial differences in how New York City Metropolitan area residents view crime and policing.
More than half of black residents in the New York City metropolitan region (53 percent) say negative relations between police and the community are a serious or somewhat serious problem in their city or town, as opposed to only 27 percent of white residents who felt the same way. Similarly, more than half of black residents (56 percent) say that the high rate of crime is a serious or somewhat serious problem where they live, while only 35 percent of white residents held similar beliefs.
These findings suggest that the very people who feel they most need law enforcement in their communities are also those having the most strained relations with the police.
These racial divisions continue to reveal themselves in our more recent work. Our ongoing Hidden Common Ground research is yielding insights into not only how Americans view our criminal justice system, but also the changes they’d like to see in it. Our mixed-race focus groups revealed broad disenchantment with the criminal justice system, from how drug crimes are treated to how financial inequities reveal themselves in the courts. A 2016 Pew Research poll revealed a significant racial divide: Seventy-five percent of blacks said blacks are treated less fairly than whites in the court system but only 43 percent of whites agreed with the sentiment.
Our research shows that racial divides remain a critical part of the American story. But as we celebrate Black History Month, we’re encouraged by what else we heard during our Hidden Common Ground research. Indeed, while racial divides are real and significant, we are learning that Americans see ways to move forward, like strengthening rehabilitation and addressing systemic factors in education and economic opportunity that they believe contribute to criminal behavior. Americans, we have seen, may be inclined to re-consider the status quos of our criminal justice system and reinvent it in a more just and equitable way.