Do police officers generally treat black and white Americans alike?
White evangelicals are more likely to say “yes” than any other major religious demographic in the United States. Black Protestants are most likely to disagree.
This rift has appeared repeatedly in surveys on American policing over the past five years, as have disparities in how these two groups understand high-profile police killings of black men and in how police make them feel. The numbers are striking:
- A 2015 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found white evangelical Protestants were the only major religious group in which a majority (62%) said police generally treat white and black people equally. Only 20 percent of minority Protestants agreed.
- Survey data from Pew Research Center and the Baylor Religion Survey in 2017 showed that gap between white evangelicals and black Protestants was intact two years later.
- The same 2015 PRRI poll found 6 in 10 white evangelicals called high-profile police killings of black men isolated incidents; 7 in 10 minority Protestants said they see a broader pattern.
- In a 2018 poll by PRRI, the isolated incident vs. broader pattern contrast was starker: Now 7 in 10 white evangelicals said the deaths were isolated incidents, while 84 percent of black Protestants said there’s a pattern.
- And the 2018 Cooperative Congressional Election Survey showed white evangelicals and black Protestants were, of 16 religious demographics, furthest apart on whether the police make them feel safe or unsafe.
The latest of these polls (the most recent I’ve found) is two years old, and it’s possible opinions have shifted some, especially over the past few weeks, as the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has drawn fresh attention to official violence and racial inequality.
But that fourth bullet point troubles me. Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Botham Jean were all killed by police between 2015 and 2018. White evangelicals witnessed these stories and yet came away more convinced there is no broader pattern of how police treat black Americans with which we need concern ourselves. In those same years, our black Protestant brothers and sisters became more insistent that exactly the opposite was true.
If black Christians overwhelmingly say they are treated unequally by the police—and they do—why do so many white evangelicals disbelieve them? There are four explanations I’d like to explore, one historical, one informational, one cultural, and one spiritual.
The historical explanation, as a recent episode of CT’s Quick to Listenpodcast detailed, concerns evangelical attitudes about policing from over a century ago (and how they’ve developed since). Around the turn of the 20th century, white American Christians across the theological spectrum believed “crime was a secular evil, that crime was something that America was going to descend into if it turned away from God,” explained historian Aaron L. Griffith, author of the forthcoming God’s Law and Order: The Politics of Punishment in Evangelical America. This produced extremely positive views of police, Griffith said, with even progressive or pacifist Christians speaking of officers as “missionaries” and “just as essential to a neighborhood's wellbeing as social workers or ministers.” Unwittingly, white evangelicals may filter what black Christians tell us through lingering, unexamined pieces of that historical lens.
The informational explanation, predictably, is about information. Before 2014, comprehensive data on police brutality and racial disparities in our justice system was inaccessible if not outright unavailable. Now we have a wealth of data and a wealth of disagreement about what it means. Those arguing racial disparities in policing are a statistical illusion tend to focus on fatal police shootings, and with that narrow dataset (perhaps narrowed again to consider only unarmed victims), they can make a plausible case. Examine other aspects of policing and criminal justice, however, and a clear racial pattern emerges in who is stopped, searched, and subjected to use of force; who is arrested, charged, and convicted for comparable crimes; who is sentenced to prison time and for how long; and who is offered pre-trial release, pardon, or commutation. Many white evangelicals may never have read these studies; many black Christians didn’t need to read them to know policing works differently for them.
The cultural explanation is much too weighty to fairly consider here, but consider that a Pew survey in 2009 found white evangelicals were an outlier on another violent topic: torture. As CT reported at the time, white evangelicals were the group most likely to say torture could be justified, and, even more damningly, enthusiasm for it was higher among those who attended church more often. Why these polling distinctions? Do they point to something gone wrong in white evangelical culture? Is there a cruelty among us? An indifference? Another poll found this support for torture plummeted if the question were tied to what could be done to captured American soldiers. That this Golden Rule framing made a difference is hopeful—but why did we need it to remember that those suffering our government’s violence are as human as us?
My last explanation is spiritual: Perhaps this disparity is the result of pride. I don’t mean the simple, blatant pride of self-aggrandizement, but rather the subtler, self-deceiving pride of hubris, the false confidence of believing we understand what we do not. Are we unjustifiably certain we know how black Americans experience our country’s criminal justice system? Do we let our hubris tell us we don’t need to re-examine our history, information sources, or culture? Do we let it convince us we don’t need to listen to accounts that unsettle our assumptions? Though “fools despise wisdom and instruction,” Proverbs 1:7 says, those who fear the Lord seek to learn “righteousness, justice, and equity” (Prov. 1:3–4, NRSV).
Our black family in Christ here in America overwhelmingly say they are treated unequally by the police. Can we, “with all humility and gentleness” (Eph. 4:2, NRSV), accept that instruction? Can we learn to believe them?
Bonnie Kristian is a columnist at Christianity Today, a contributing editor at The Week, a fellow at Defense Priorities, and the author of A Flexible Faith: Rethinking What It Means to Follow Jesus Today (Hachette).
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