After Zimmerman verdict, new polls show stark racial divide over justice and race

Updated
A young child is reflected in a window with her family in the Crescent area of Rochester, NY.
A young child is reflected in a window with her family in the Crescent area of Rochester, NY.
Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum

A new NBC/WSJ poll finds Americans sharply divided on matters of race, justice and opportunity in the aftermath of the trial of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted on charges of second degree murder and manslaughter in mid-July. Zimmerman said he shot Trayvon Martin in self defense, and his lawyers have said race was not a factor in his actions.

The numbers reveal a wide gulf between white and black Americans on whether race still matters. While a majority of Americans–54% according to the poll–still believe America is a country that abides by Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a society “where people are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” that majority breaks down along racial lines. While 59% of whites agree with that sentiment, eight out of ten black Americans—79%—somewhat disagree or strongly disagree. Only 19% of black Americans somewhat or strongly agree that Americans aren’t judged according to their racial background. That number is way down from shortly after Barack Obama was elected in 2009, when 41% of black Americans agreed with the statement that in America “people are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Among Hispanics, 54% somewhat or strongly agree with that statement, and 44% somewhat or strongly disagree.

According to the poll, 50% of white Americans think race relations are very good or fairly good, while only 38% of black Americans feel the same. Among black Americans, 58% say race relations are fairly bad or very bad, compared to 45% of white Americans who say the same. Sixty percent of Hispanics polled said that race relations were fairly or very good, while just 35% said they were fairly or very bad. Overall, 52% of Americans say race relations are very or fairly good, way down from January of 2009, when basking in the afterglow of the election of the first black president, 77% of Americans said race relations were very or fairly good.

The NBC/WSJ survey also showed that views about the trial of George Zimmerman also broke down along racial and partisan lines. A plurality of respondents, 48%, said the trial had no effect on their confidence in the US legal system while 32% percent of all adults say it decreased their confidence and 17% said it increased their confidence. Blacks and Democrats were more likely to say the trial diminished their confidence in the legal system, with 71% of blacks and 48% of Democrats saying so. Just 35% of Latinos, 24% of whites and a small number of Republicans, 13%, said the same.

Recent surveys by the Washington Post/ABC and the Pew Center have revealed similar divides over the verdict in the Zimmerman trial and the nature of justice in the United States. According to the Washington Post/ABC poll, 86% of black Americans think minorities do not receive equal treatment under the law. The same number, 86%, are dissatisfied with the verdict in the Zimmerman trial, according to Pew, and in the same survey 58% of Latinos were also dissatisfied. By contrast, a majority of whites, 54% according to the Washington Post/ABC, say minorities receive equal treatment under the law, while in the Pew survey 49% of whites were are satisfied with the Zimmerman verdict.

When President Obama spoke at a press conference last Friday, he said that “when you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened” with the death of Trayvon Martin and the trial of George Zimmerman, “I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”

It’s hard—if not impossible—to “get away” from one’s history or personal experience. But recent surveys show that even with one of the most eloquent politicians of his age to express those sentiments, white Americans still have trouble understanding where black Americans are coming from.

(The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted July 17-21 of 1,000 adults (including 300 cell phone-only respondents), and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points. A full PDF of the poll is located here.)

After Zimmerman verdict, new polls show stark racial divide over justice and race

Updated