Saletan: Why Whites Agree with Grand Jury in Ferguson But Not in New York City
December 11, 2014, 03:26 PM
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Old-timer William Saletan writes in Slate about how whites in a national poll are much more likely to blame the cops in the New York Eric Garner case than in Ferguson Michael Brown case:

Informed Bias

While blacks see the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and Staten Island almost identically, whites seem them as dramatically different. Why is that?

By William Saletan

In recent weeks, two grand juries—one in Ferguson, Missouri, and the other in Staten Island, New York—have failed to indict police officers in the deaths of unarmed men. In each case, the victim was black, the officer who killed him [is that an inarguable statement about the death of the obese Garner?] was white, and most grand jurors were white. According to a new survey by the Pew Research Center, more than 60 percent of black people, compared with 16 to 18 percent of white people, believe that race was a “major factor” in both decisions.

But the survey presents a puzzle. If race played an equally strong role in both grand juries—presumably by influencing white jurors or a white-dominated process—you’d expect the poll results to be consistent with that. Since both cases centered on a white cop and a black victim, you’d expect whites to view the two cases somewhat similarly. Instead, whites judged the case in New York quite differently from the one in Missouri.

It’s a good bet that race did influence the grand jurors. Plenty of research has shown that race affects almost everyone’s perceptions, at least in subtle ways. But what’s striking here is that Pew’s black respondents believed the degree of influence was roughly the same in both cases. In the Ferguson case, 64 percent of blacks said race was a major factor in the grand jury’s decision, 17 percent said it was a minor factor, and 9 percent said it wasn’t a factor. In the Staten Island case, the numbers were almost identical: 62, 18, and 11 percent.

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You can argue that this perception of racial bias fits what white respondents said about the Ferguson case. Sixty-four percent of whites in Pew’s sample said the grand jury was right not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown. Only 23 percent said this outcome was wrong. Sixty percent of whites said race was a nonfactor in the grand jury’s decision. (Seventeen percent said it was a minor factor, and 16 percent said it was a major factor.)

But how, then, do you explain what the same white respondents said about the New York case? Only 28 percent said the Staten Island grand jury was right not to indict the officer who killed Eric Garner. More than half of the whites who agreed with the decision in Ferguson did not agree with the decision in New York. Same-colored victim, same-colored officer, same white poll sample, different conclusion.

How did whites arrive at different opinions in the two cases? The crucial variable appears to be information, not race. In the Ferguson case, 47 percent of whites who had read or heard a little about the grand jury’s decision said it was right; 26 percent said it was wrong. Among whites who said they had read or heard a lot about the decision, 70 percent said it was right; 23 percent said it was wrong. That’s a 26-point increase in the net margin of support for the decision (the percentage who said it was right, minus the percentage who said it was wrong)

In the New York case, the trend went the other way. Among whites who had read or heard a little about the grand jury’s decision, 40 percent said it was wrong; 33 percent said it was right. Among whites who said they had read or heard a lot about the decision, 61 percent said it was wrong; 27 percent said it was right. That’s a 27-point increase in the net margin of opposition to the decision. In the Garner case, unlike the Brown case, the more whites learned, the more they disagreed with the outcome.

It’s almost as if white people, those epitomes of evil, tend to be the fairest, most unbiased racial group in America …
The poll doesn’t tell us what these respondents learned. The question simply asked how much they had read or heard “about the decision by [the] grand jury.” In the Ferguson case, maybe they heard about autopsy results or witness testimony. Maybe they saw Wilson’s interview on ABC News, or the surveillance tape of Brown in a convenience store. In the Staten Island case, maybe they saw the unflinching video of Garner’s death. The quantity, quality, and clarity of evidence differed between the two cases. Maybe that mattered.
If I’d been polled, I would have said the grand jury made the right decision in Ferguson and would have said “I don’t know” about New York City.

Why? First, I’m cautious about jumping to conclusions — that’s why I sat on linking to Richard Bradley’s skepticism about the Rolling Stone RaperGate article for four or five days while I mulled over whether 99% of the media could be wrong. I’m fairly good at figuring out how things work, but I’m also aware of how much effort it takes me to read up on and think through some event before I can be fairly confident in my understanding of it.

Second, Ferguson, Missouri was a much, much bigger story than New York, New York in the online newspaper I subscribe to, the New York Times. For months the New York Times had been implying that Ferguson was the Defining Event of Our Times, while New York City was some local police blotter item. So, I was persuaded by the New York Times to pay more attention to Ferguson than to New York. Granted, I came to a different opinion about Ferguson than the NYT Editorial Board, but at least I was paying attention to what they clearly wanted me to pay attention to.

On a side note, let me point out that there are obvious distinctions between criminal and civil justice. For example, in the local law enforcement shooting of an unarmed 18 year old violist that I injected myself into back in 2010, it never looked all that much like a criminal case to me. When I went to the scene of the shooting to study it and met the dead man’s mom, who was there for the same reason, I told her to sue.

The guy who pulled the trigger messed up, but he was in position to mess up because of a number of not very good decisions made by Obama Administration and local agents. It was a broad screw-up, so the final verdict — a $3 million civil suit payout to the parents — seemed reasonable. Hopefully, it provides incentives for better practices in the future.

In the New York City case, perhaps a civil suit might provide an opportunity for consideration of best practices for subduing large, recalcitrant scofflaws.

Beats me what do to do about them. From having watched a lot of nature documentaries about polar bears, perhaps shooting Eric Garner-sized lawbreakers with a tranquilizer dart gun would be a good idea?

Eh, probably not.