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.