The shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch captain in Sanford, Fla. has dominated national news lately, with African-Americans more than twice as likely as Whites to follow the story very closely, according to a study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
The study, conducted March 22-25, found that 70 percent of African-Americans followed the story very closely, compared to 30 percent of Whites. Women were more likely to closely follow events surrounding Martin’s death than men, 40 percent to 29 percent. There was also a political divide, with 50 percent of Democrats saying they followed the story very closely, compared to 31 percent of Republicans and 26 percent of independents.
Older respondents followed the story more closely than younger people. The study found that 40 percent of those 65 and older followed the story very closely, trailed by the 50-64 age group (37 percent), 30-49 (33 percent) and 18-29 (26 percent).
When pollsters approached the issue another way by asking respondents to rank their top stories, there was also a sharp racial divide. Fifty-two percent of Blacks ranked the Trayvon Martin story as their top pick, followed by the presidential elections at 13 percent. Whites were almost evenly divided, with 20 percent ranking the death of Trayvon Martin as No.1, edging out the presidential election at 19 percent. Among Whites, the economy was a close third at 17 percent. The economy was a distant third among African-Americans, with only a 7 percent ranking.
The wide gulf between the views of Whites and Blacks on race is nothing new. The two communities hold distinctly different views toward law enforcement officials. While Whites tend the view cops as protective allies, many African-Americans, especially males, live in fear of being mistreated by police officers.
A 2009 study by the Pew Research Center found that 38 percent of Whites expressed a great deal of confidence in local police treating Blacks and Whites equally. However, only 14 percent of African-Americans shared that view. At the other end of the spectrum, 34 percent of Blacks expressed very little confidence in police treating Blacks and Whites equally, a view shared by 9 percent of Whites.
Interestingly, the national news media did not provide widespread coverage of the Feb. 26 Trayvon Martin shooting until a month later. In the meantime, the Black Press and social media kept the story alive. Release of the 911 tapes and the public outcry that followed forced national media organizations to take notice.
A 2010 Pew study found that African-Americans are highly critical of news coverage of their community.
“Nearly six-in-ten (58%) said that coverage of blacks was too negative. Just half as many (29%) said the coverage was either fair (28%) or too positive (1%),” the report said. “By contrast, nearly half (48%) of whites said that coverage of blacks was generally fair. Just 31% of whites thought that news coverage of blacks was too negative.” In addition, 51 percent of Blacks said race relations received too little media coverage while only 24 percent of Whites agreed with that opinion.
Undergirding all of those statistics are different perceptions about the existence of racial discrimination.
For example, 43 percent of Blacks said there is a lot of discrimination against African-Americans, compared with 13 percent of Whites. In the survey, Whites were more likely to say Latinos were discriminated against more than Blacks (21 percent vs. 13 percent).
Eighty-one percent of African-Americans said “our country needs to continue making changes to give Blacks equal rights with Whites.” Only 36 percent of Whites agreed. A majority of Whites – 54 percent – said “our country has made the changes it needed to give blacks equal rights with whites.”
Many pointed to the election of President Barack Obama as a watershed moment for race relations in the U.S.
A Gallup Poll conducted the day after Obama was elected president in November 2008 showed that 70 percent of Americans believed race relations would improve as a result of his victory. Today, however, 48 percent of African-Americans and 31 percent of Whites believe race relations have improved under the president.
In addition, the glow from Obama’s election has faded over the past three years.
In 2009, 71 percent of Blacks thought the election of Obama was one of the most important advances for African-Americans in the past 100 years; today that percentage has declined to 65 percent, a drop of 6 percent. Among Whites, there was nearly a 20 percent decline, falling from 56 percent in 2009 to 37 percent today.
Although there should be universal outrage against a 28-year-old man shooting to death an unarmed 17-year-old, interest in the case, like so many other things in America, is heavily influenced by race.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is editorial director of Heart & Soul magazine. He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.