President Barack Obama had hoped his historic election would ease race relations, yet a majority of Americans, 53 percent, say the interactions between the white and black communities have deteriorated since he took office, according to a new Bloomberg Politics poll. Those divisions are laid bare in the split reactions to the decisions by two grand juries not to indict white police officers who killed unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y.
Both times, protesters responded with outrage and politicians called for federal investigations. Yet Americans don’t think of the cases as a matched set of injustices, the poll found. A majority agreed with the Ferguson decision, while most objected to the conclusion in the Staten Island death, which was captured on video. The divergent opinions—52 percent agreed on Ferguson compared with 25 percent who approved of the Staten Island outcome—add to an ongoing discussion that was inflamed when Officer Daniel Pantaleo was seen in the July video putting what appeared to be a chokehold on Eric Garner, a 43-year-old man suspected of selling untaxed cigarettes. Garner could be heard saying, “I can’t breathe,” and died of a heart attack in what a medical examiner ruled a homicide. The grand jury decision not to charge Pantaleo came just 12 days after a similar panel in Ferguson declined to charge Officer Darren Wilson, who in August shot to death 18-year-old Michael Brown. That altercation was not captured on video, and the prosecutor presented evidence of a physical confrontation between the two men before the fatal shots were fired.
To Dania Wilson, 49, a Northern Virginia white woman, the cases shouldn’t be lumped together. “I think sometimes the media likes to put upon people a theme that’s political in nature,” she said in an interview.
The Bloomberg survey shows a gulf between how whites and blacks view the incidents. Ninety percent of African Americans thought the grand jury should have indicted in the Staten Island death. Just over half of the white people polled felt that way. On Ferguson, 89 percent of blacks disagreed with the grand jury, while just 25 percent of whites did. The smaller sample size of black adults changes the margin of error of their response on the grand jury questions to plus or minus 6.5 percentage points.
“I am going to trust our grand juries until there’s proof that they’re not being honest,” said Dale Griessel, 80, a white retiree in Columbia, Mo., who agrees with both jury decisions. “None of us has seen the forensic evidence. They have.”
Delarno Wilson, 28, a black Georgia resident who objects to both jury outcomes, said he wasn’t surprised that there is division based on race. “Your background is what makes you,” he said. “If you don’t understand the struggle that a person went through, you never truly get it.” Wilson is in the U.S. Coast Guard and said many of his assignments are in overwhelmingly white towns. “I constantly have to worry about how to relate to people. That’s something white people don’t have to think about.”
The poll of 1,001 U.S. adults was conducted Dec. 3-5 by Selzer & Company of Des Moines, Iowa, and the poll for the full sample has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
In the six years since his election as the nation’s first black president, Obama has addressed race just a handful of times. He delivered his most personal remarks after an unarmed 17-year-old boy was gunned down in Florida by a man who found him to be suspicious, and then again when that man, George Zimmerman, was acquitted of any crime. “You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is, Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
Obama has also weighed in on the deaths of both Brown and Garner. And the Justice Department is reviewing the two incidents, as well. Yet Obama has not gone to Missouri or New York. To Griessel, that’s a problem. “He should have gone to Ferguson and very bluntly said, ‘I don’t want any violence here. Let’s show people that we can accept verdicts we don’t like,’” he said. “The destruction just makes people more prejudice than they already are.”
Obama also nodded to the symbolic power of his rise to the presidency in the opening line of his victory speech on Nov. 4, 2008. “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of democracy, tonight is your answer.”
Elizabeth White, an African American Democrat, remembered vividly that speech and the elation she felt. “I was thinking of the Negro National Anthem, that line ‘Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,’ and thinking, ‘suddenly I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.’”
“Now I wonder, were people looking for a real change, or was the change that was coming a bit too much to take?” the Maryland school principal asked. “Was it too bold, too radical for the time?”
Michael C. Bender contributed to this report.