Whites are now divided on whether the deaths of black men at the hands of the police are 'isolated incidents'

On April 27th ongoing disturbances in Baltimore erupted into a night of rioting and looting after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a black man who died in suspicious circumstances after being arrested by the Baltimore police. The incident is the latest in a string of controversial deaths of black men at the hands of the police which have prompted a national movement to reform the police and have led major political figures to call for overhaul of how the criminal justice system works. Unlike in many other cases, however, the authorities have quickly decided to prosecute the officers involved, with one officer facing a murder charge and several others facing manslaughter and assault charges.

YouGov's latest research shows that a significant racial divide persists on whether or not the police in most cities treat blacks as fairly as whites. Going back to the Rodney King era white Americans have narrowly tended to agree rather than disagree with the assertion that blacks are treated as fairly as whites by the police (47%-40%, Washington Post/ABC 1992). Even today, after the death of Freddie Gray, 41% of white Americans think that blacks are treated as fairly as whites while 34% disagree. Among black Americans, however, only 13% think that they are treated as fairly as whites by the police, while 76% disagree. 

Despite the continued tendency among white Americans to think that the police treat black Americans fairly, one area has seen a noteworthy shift in opinion in recent months. Asked whether the death of Freddie Gray was an isolated incident or part of the broader pattern of how black men are treated by the police, white opinion is now split, with 38% saying that it is part of a broader pattern and 36% saying that it is an isolated incident. In January, however, a majority of white Americans (56%) said that the death of Michael Brown was an isolated incident and did not reflect a broader pattern.

The riots in Baltimore, as in Ferguson, have been widely condemned by the vast majority of public leaders. When Americans are asked, however, whether the government only really pays attention to black problems when they riot, opinion is split. 42% of Americans say that the federal government only pays attention to blacks when they riot, while 41% disagree. Even among whites 37% say that the government doesn't pay attention until there is violence, and among blacks only 15% think that the federal government pays attention to their issues when the streets are quiet. 

Race relations is one issue where Barack Obama's approval rating among black Americans is unusually low. 52% approve of how the president is handling race relations. That is a majority, but it is also much lower than the 77% of black Americans who approve of how he is doing his job overall in the latest YouGov/Economist poll.

Full poll results can be found here and topline results and margin of error here.

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