African Americans are more likely than the general population to be victims of crime, a reality that fuels their support of tough criminal penalties although they have little confidence in the criminal justice system, according to a new poll.
That ambivalence reflects the dilemma facing many blacks: They feel more threatened by crime, but they also feel more vulnerable to police brutality and harassment, according to poll results released last week by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank that specializes in issues relating to blacks.
The survey was based on telephone interviews in January with 1,596 adults, who were grouped by category: a national general population sample, a national sample of African Americans and a national sample of 18- to 25-year-old black males.
More than a quarter of black respondents reported that they or someone close to them had been a victim of violent crime in the past two years. Fewer than one in six people in the general population reported similar experiences.
More than half of blacks but less than a third of the general population said there were areas within three blocks of their homes where they were afraid to walk at night. And almost 62 percent of the black respondents said illegal drug use was a major problem in their communities, while 40 percent of the general population responded similarly.
At the same time, almost 43 percent of the black respondents said police brutality and harassment are serious problems where they live, a belief shared by only 13 percent of the general population. The poll also found that 48 percent of the black respondents favored the death penalty, while 72 percent of the general population supports capital punishment.
Katherine McFate, associate director of research and social policy for the center who analyzed the poll results, said the findings illustrate the dual frustration felt by many blacks when it comes to crime. “I think these results reflect blacks being frustrated both with being crime victims and frustrated with the police” and criminal justice system, she said.
In addition to crime, the poll results also reflected wide differences between African Americans and the general population on other issues, including school vouchers, and revealed differences, as well, between the attitudes of average African Americans and the policies embraced by many black civil rights and political leaders.
For instance, almost half of the poll’s black respondents said they favored programs to provide government vouchers to help pay private-school tuitions, a program that has been opposed by many black elected officials. Three in four blacks polled said they favor a constitutional amendment allowing for school prayer, which also is widely opposed by black lawmakers. And almost three in four black respondents said they favored life sentences for people convicted of three violent crimes.
“Three-strikes-and-you’re-out” legislation has been enacted in many states, but it has been criticized by many African-American leaders and others, who feel that blacks are disproportionately affected. In many of the states where the provision was enacted, it applied to all felonies, not just violent crime.
“Whether that is out of touch or not I don’t know. I don’t think so,” said Eddie N. Williams, president of the center.
“There are some issue areas where black leaders need to listen a little more closely to their constituents.”