DETROIT — As a national reckoning over racism and policing grips the nation, white Democrats are far more likely now than they were a few years ago to think police brutality is a serious issue — a dramatic shift in public opinion that some say could shape the November presidential election.
A majority of white Democrats today say police officers are more likely to use deadly force against a Black person than against a white person, according to a recent poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, not unlike five years ago.
But for the first time, the poll shows significant changes in how white Democrats view police brutality and the consequences: 64 percent now describe police violence against the public as very or extremely serious, compared with 29 percent in July 2015.
Race and policing in America have been thrust into an international spotlight amid an already tumultuous presidential campaign after a series of high-profile police killings of Black Americans that has sparked global protests and demands for structural change. The campaign had already been fraught with racial tension fueled by the coronavirus pandemic and its ensuing economic fallout, which both have disproportionately impacted people of color.
In Maine, anti-police brutality demonstrations occurred in towns across the state. The biggest were in Portland and Bangor, and school board members in Portland have supported removing police from their school system. Many police and sheriffs in Maine also condemned police brutality and have been changing policies and procedures to make it less likely and the acting head of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, which trains the state’s police and corrections officers and oversees their licenses, has discussed the academy’s role in addressing police racism.
While racial inequity has long been a focal point of African Americans, experts say many white Americans, particularly white Democrats, are now grappling with the longstanding impacts of systemic racism in ways they never have before.
San Diego resident Chris Chapman, a white woman and a Democrat, said witnessing George Floyd’s death was particularly jarring for her.
“I think the brutality of that event, it really raised the consciousness, at least for me,” Chapman, 68, said. “It shocked people who really hadn’t yet gotten to the place where they thought that could happen.”
Most white Democrats say that they disapprove of President Donald Trump’s handling of racial issues and that he has only sowed further division at a time of immense unrest. Trump on Sunday tweeted and later deleted a video showing one of his supporters chanting “white power,” a racist slogan associated with white supremacists.
But the big question is whether this racial awakening among white Democrats translates into increased turnout at the polls favoring presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, said Ashley Jardina, assistant professor of political science at Duke University and author of the book “White Identity Politics.”
“This kind of shift in public opinion is pretty unprecedented especially when it comes to matters of race,” Jardina said. “If you just ask people who’ve become more racially progressive who they are they going to vote for, they’re going to be more supportive of Joe Biden, but are they going to take the time to actually show up and vote? That’s what we don’t know, and that’s what’s really important.”
The poll also found that Democrats are far more likely than they were in 2015 to say the justice system treats officers too leniently when they cause injury or death in their job, as compared with fairly or too harshly. The increase is especially sharp — 40 percentage points — among white Democrats. Now, 86 percent say the justice system is too lenient with officers, up from 46 percent. Black Democrats are even more likely than they were in 2015 to say that, 87 percent vs. 71 percent.
Massachusetts resident Krystyna Colborn said she’s observed several police violence protests in her community, which she sees as a sign of an increased willingness to take action to usher in a new president following Americans witnessing “death upon death” of Black Americans at the hands of police.
“I don’t think it will benefit Donald Trump,” Colborn, a 74-year-old white Democrat, said. “I think he has people who are behind him solidly and they will not change, but I think there are white people who are going to vote against Donald Trump. I will vote for [Biden] because he’s a Trump alternative, and I think there may be other people who are in that same position. It’s the people who are beginning to realize this, who I think will have the most influence.”
And tapping into those potential voters will be key looking toward November, Progressive Turnout Project Executive Director Alex Morgan said. The political action committee announced in late June a $52.5 million effort to canvass key battleground states, including Wisconsin and Georgia, to reach voters who didn’t turn out in 2016.
“Voters are recognizing that this is the most consequential election of our lifetimes,” Morgan said. “We’re standing with protesters and activists who are speaking out against police brutality and structural racism, and I think we’re going to see folks turn this pain and outrage of this moment into lasting change at the ballot box.”
Democrats continue to say overwhelmingly that police more commonly use deadly force against a Black person. White Democrats are now more likely than they were in 2015 to say police more commonly use force with Black people, 87 percent vs. 62 percent.
Jeffrey Boord-Dill, a 62-year-old white man and professor who lives in Kentucky, said his eyes have been opened in new ways in recent weeks to racism and it’s pushing him toward action to make sure his voice is heard in November.
“I have been in a state of dissatisfaction and pretty much anger for almost four years because of what the Trump administration and Republican Party backing him up has done to this country in terms of race baiting and putting people against one another,” Boord-Dill, a Democrat, said. “My students are the ones who I am so proud of who are going out and marching, and they’re not pulling any punches at all. That’s the change that I’m seeing and that makes me the most hopeful that maybe we’ll be able to start to solve this problem.”
Story by Kat Stafford and Hannah Fingerhut.
The AP-NORC poll of 1,301 adults was conducted June 11-15 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.