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Police View Black People as 'Worthless,' Ferguson Protesters Say

Previous surveys have shown that race is associated with perceptions of crime. However, a new study reveals that people of color don't associate race with crime—but they think police do.
Ferguson protesters. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

When Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, was shot six times and ultimately killed by a white police officer named Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, riots erupted in the city. The summer of 2014, fire, looting, and protesters were all over the news. As I watched the events erupt from a safe distance, I suddenly felt surrounded by white people, literally and irrationally. As a black woman I understood the anger that was surfacing in the wake of a death of another unarmed black kid, though I felt that everyone around me did not. Toward the riots that consumed Ferguson that August, I felt neutral. Burning down the city whose police and government hardly reflect or respect the majority of its citizens honestly seemed like a rational response that couldn't be judged morally. Though of course, it was: In the media, rioters were characterized as violent thugs, blindly committing anarchistic and criminal acts without rhyme or reason. It felt as if the whole world demanded justification for anger that seemed obvious, to me, in origin.


Now, in "Perceptions of race, crime, and policing among Ferguson protesters," a new study published in the Journal of Crime and Justice, researchers at Michigan State University have offered up some insights into the authority-weary citizens of the Missouri city. What's radical about this study is not the results, but the subjects to whom it gives a voice: "Research has consistently demonstrated that white Americans strongly associate racial minorities with crime and overestimate the proportion of crime committed by people of color," the study's lead researcher, Dr. Jennifer Cobbina, writes. "Most studies examining racial perceptions of crime focus on the views of white people or on racially or ethnically mixed groups of respondents. To date, however, scholars have devoted less attention to exploring whether and to what extent African-Americans also associate race with crime and crime with race."

Filling in that gap in research, Dr. Cobbina and her team conducted interviews with 81 Ferguson protesters within two months of the death of Michael Brown to gauge their perception of how race influences crime and how they think police perceive race and crime. The study's findings get to the heart of the anger and frustration among black people in Ferguson—where "the proportion of African-Americans is nearly three times higher… than St. Louis County as a whole" and the median income is $20,000 lower—and elsewhere throughout the country.


The majority of respondents (56 percent) believe that "African Americans and whites are equally likely to engage in crime," Cobbina told Broadly over the phone. Conversely, the majority of respondents felt that blacks were viewed as "culpable villains" by law enforcement. Additionally, 37 percent of protesters said they felt that law enforcement viewed blacks as "worthless" and "debased." One woman who was interviewed, identified as Susanna, said she thinks the police view blacks "as dogs." Susanna continues: "Our lives are worthless. They think we don't matter." Thirty-one percent of respondents also felt that "police viewed whites as blameless and above suspicion."

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"Ferguson protesters in the study believed that socioeconomic status played a role [in crime]," Cobbina said. "They thought that blacks were more likely to engage in petty crime out of financial need, while whites engaged in corporate crimes out of opportunity. They thought the media played a role in perpetuating negative stereotypes of blacks being violent criminals by paying disproportionate attention to crimes committed by people of color."

While it's not surprising to hear that the majority of Ferguson protesters feel blacks are marginalized by their community's biased policing, the study doesn't seem intended for those who already take this as fact—in other words, Cobbina isn't preaching to the choir. While it's worth emphasizing that the data is not dealing with facts, but with feelings, citizen perception of the police, as the study points out, matters. "On the one hand, if the police are perceived to treat citizens in a fair and respectful (procedurally just) manner, they are more likely to be viewed as a legitimate authority," the study concludes. "On the other hand, if citizens are treated unfairly they are likely to lose or lack legitimacy in the eyes of the public. There is growing concern that perceived injustice can itself cause criminal offending, as such behavior can be justified in light of disrespectful or discriminatory actions of state agents or in defiance of such actions. Similarly, perceptions of police bias can result in social unrest; the mass public demonstrations, including peaceful protests and violent rioting, following the police shooting of Michael Brown and others since the summer of 2014 provides clear evidence of this."

Cobbina emphasizes that her study, though specific to Ferguson, has broader implications. "The protesters I interviewed really did not see police discrimination as an isolated phenomenon. They believed that police treatment of blacks and whites is reflective of broader social inequalities and discrimination in society at large," she said. "The social unrest [in Ferguson] was not just in response to Mike Brown. It was a response to widespread racial injustice on the part of the police and also larger society that produces the conditions in which Brown was killed. Our findings suggest that police and community relations are important.

"There's a lot of structural change that needs to be addressed," she added, "but at the very least, it's important to have a two-way conversation between the local police and the community."