Editor’s Note: Last week’s fatal shooting of two black men by police and the subsequent killing of five Dallas police officers have reinvigorated the debate over police brutality and racial tension in America. As a research company, one of Barna’s key functions is to contribute reliable data that equips leaders to accurately describe and interpret cultural trends. In April 2016, as part of a larger study we are conducting on social values, our team collected public opinion data on perceptions of police brutality. We are making that research available this week in order to offer context into what Americans told us about the topic.
In the nationwide survey of American adults, respondents were asked two questions related to the subject of police brutality. The first question gauged how strongly American adults agree or disagree with the following statement: “The police unfairly target people of color and other minority groups.” A slim majority of Americans agree that police unfairly target people of color and other minority groups. More than half of all adults (53%) either somewhat or strongly agree with the statement, four in 10 (40%) either somewhat or strongly disagree, while 7 percent admit they are not sure.
The second question looked specifically at personal experience, asking respondents whether they personally live in fear of police brutality. Most (78%) say they either probably or definitely do not live in fear of police brutality, while more than one in five Americans say they either absolutely (7%) or possibly do (15%). The deepest divides though—for both questions—exist among generation, ethnicity and religion.
As far as demographic and psychographic trends, we found the most marked differences in opinion when looking at generation, ethnicity, and ideology. For instance, younger Americans are more likely than older Americans to believe that police unfairly target people of color and other minority groups. Looking specifically at those who strongly agree, Millennials are more than three times as likely as Elders (32% compared to 10%) to strongly agree that police demonstrate prejudice.
White Americans (14%) are the least likely ethnicity to strongly agree that police unfairly target people of color and other minority groups. That compares to four in 10 among all non-white Americans (40%). Black Americans are the most likely to strongly agree with the statement (53%)—almost four times as many as white Americans. And among Hispanic Americans, one-third strongly agrees that police unfairly target people of color and minority groups (34%).
African-Americans (16%) and Hispanics (14%) are about four times more likely than white Americans (4%) to say they “absolutely” live in fear of police brutality personally. Only 13% of white Americans say they live in any fear of police brutality (saying they either “absolutely” or “possibly” fear such intimidation), but that compares to 56% of black Americans and 29% of Hispanics and 28% of Asian-Americans.
Other segments who are more likely than average to fear police brutality include: Millennials (35%), liberals (34%), Democrats (31%), parents with children in the household (31%), and unmarried adults (29%).
Interestingly, education and household income do not factor significantly in fear of experiencing brutality. In other words, having an income over $100,000 or a college degree, for example, does not make a person less likely to express such concern.
Similarly, region was not a major factor in perceptions: 27 percent of residents of the West said they fear police brutality, which compares to 25 percent of those in the South, 20 percent of those in the Midwest, and 18 percent in the Northeast. In effect, this means that concern over severe mistreatment by the police ranges from roughly one-quarter to about one-fifth of adults across the country.
Perceptions by Faith Segment
When it comes to faith, evangelicals stand out from national norms. Overall, only 29 percent of evangelicals believe police unfairly target people of color. All other faith segments in America stand in contrast to this—with half or more believing this to be the case, including non-evangelical born again Christians (49%), notional Christians (50%), adherents to other faiths (59%), and those who are atheists and agnostics (67%).
When it comes to matters of faith engagement, practicing Christians are about as likely as unchurched adults (48% versus 54%, respectively) to believe police unfairly target minorities.
Overall, about 12% of evangelicals say they personally feel threatened by police, which is about half the rate of those from other faith groups or those who align with no faith.
Looking at the differences between white born again Christians versus non-white born again Christians, the differences are rather striking. Only one-quarter of white born-again adults (24%) believe police unfairly target people of color, compared to more than eight in 10 (82%) non-white born again adults. It’s a similar story when it comes to living in fear of police brutality (5% of white born-again compared to 34% of non-white born again Christians).
Putting the Findings in Perspective
David Kinnaman, president of Barna and director of the study, says, “These findings represent a challenging reality for evangelicals and their leaders. Huge gaps exist between most evangelicals and tens of millions of Americans—gaps in perception about the extent and proximity of prejudicial law enforcement. The different levels of opinion help to explain why people feel such varying states of urgency about the issue. To help evangelicals grapple with the problems of implicit racial bias, Christian leaders must come to realize how deeply and personally experienced these problems are for so many in society and in the church.”
Readers can find additional Barna research on Black Lives Matter and Racial Tension.
About the Research
The study on which these findings are based was conducted via online survey from April 7 to April 14, 2016. A total of 1,097 interviews were conducted. The sample error is plus or minus 2.8 percentage points at 95-percent confidence level. The completion rate was 85%.
Born again: Have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and believe that, when they die, they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.
Non-evangelical born again Christians: meet the born again criteria but not all of the seven other criteria to be classified as an evangelical Christian
Evangelical Christian: Meet the born again criteria plus seven other conditions. These conditions include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”
No faith: identify as agnostic or atheist, or as having no faith
Other faith: identify with a non-Christian faith, or identify as a Christian but report beliefs not aligned with historic, orthodox Christianity
Notional: identify as Christian, but do not meet the born again criteria
Millennials: Born between 1984 and 2002
Busters/Gen-Xers: Born between 1965 and 1983
Boomers: Born between 1946 and 1964
Elders: Born between 1945 or earlier
Liberal: identify as mostly liberal when it comes to political issues.
Democrat: registered Democrat
About the Barna Group
The Barna Group is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.