Jun 10, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Pew: Most Black Americans say police, government plot against them

A bar chart that visualizes a survey of 4,736 U.S. Black adults' beliefs on select ideas about discrimination. The highest belief, at 76%, is that Black public officials are singled out for discredit and police do little to stop guns and drugs in Black communities. Around 51% believe the government promotes birth control or abortion to keep the Black population small.
Data: Pew Research Center; Chart: Axios Visuals

A majority of Black Americans polled believe political, economic and criminal justice systems are holding Black people back, a new Pew Research Center survey finds.

Why it matters: The study drives home various beliefs held among Black Americans that are grounded in actual events of discrimination.

  • These beliefs highlight profound distrust in U.S. institutions stemming from generations of trauma.

The big picture: Amid growing distrust in institutions by all Americans, the study further shows the deep skepticism Black Americans hold toward the police, media and health care, a sentiment rooted in decades of oppression.

Zoom in: Most Black adults surveyed in September 2023 say the prison (74%), political (67%) and economic (65%) systems in the U.S. are designed to keep Black people from being successful, the Pew Research Center survey released Monday showed.

  • The survey of nearly 5,000 Black adults found that most Black Americans are familiar with specific racial ideologies about U.S. institutions and believe they are true.

By the numbers: 82% of Black adults say they have heard that Black people are more likely than white people to be incarcerated because prisons want to make money off Black people. A substantial majority of Black adults (74%) say this is true and is happening in the U.S. today.

  • 76% of Black adults say it is true that Black public officials are singled out and discredited in a way that doesn't happen to white public officials and that it is happening today.
  • About two-thirds (67%) of Black Americans agree businesses target marketing of luxury products to Black people to bankrupt them.
  • About half of Black Americans (52%) say the news media was designed to hold Black people back a great deal or a fair amount.

Behind the scenes: Kiana Cox, a senior researcher on Pew Research Center's Race and Ethnicity team, tells Axios the study was developed by asking Black participants if they'd ever heard of particular racial beliefs, later dubbed conspiracy theories in research findings.

  • If they had, researchers asked if the participants thought the beliefs were true.
  • "We asked this in stages," Cox said. "We didn't phrase it as 'conspiracy theories' in the survey because that term can be a little charged. For black people, these types of narratives are also grounded in history."

Case in point: The CIA released a report in the 1990s about its role in the inner-city cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and early '90s.

  • While the agency denied it was directly involved, officials admitted that addressing drug activity in its Central American operations was not among its priorities.
  • The San Jose Mercury News published a series, later disputed, that alleged the CIA flooded Black communities with crack and used those profits to fund a Latin American guerrilla arm.
  • Stokely Carmichael, the 1960s Black Power activist later known as Kwame Ture, spoke about the conspiracy on college campuses in the 1990s and urged Black students to rise.

Between the lines: The ideologies in the Pew survey are unlike recent QAnon or election fraud conspiracy theories often spread online by misinformation because they are based on stories of painful racism retold by elders.

  • Jesse Holland, associate director at The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs, tells Axios it's unsurprising that some Black Americans think some of these events are still happening.
  • "It is not a conspiracy theory that the U.S. government is willing to experiment medically on African Americans," said Holland, author of "The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slavery In The White House."
  • "The experiments at Tuskegee University prove that to be true. It has happened before."

What we're watching: Former President Donald Trump has tried to tap into Black distrust of the criminal justice system by attempting to draw a connection with his recent guilty verdict in a business fraud case.

Methodology: The report is based on the responses of 4,736 U.S. adults who identify as Black and non-Hispanic, multiracial Black and non-Hispanic, or Black and Hispanic from Sept. 12-24, 2023. This includes 1,755 Black adults on the Center's American Trends Panel (ATP) and 2,981 Black adults on Ipsos' KnowledgePanel®.

  • The margin of sampling error is ±2.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
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