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Survey shows blacks wildly overestimate frequency of police fatally shooting young black men

White Trump voters most likely to correctly state that traffic deaths are higher.

Updated: April 19, 2021 - 7:57am

Public interest in the Derek Chauvin trial is likely influenced by the widespread belief that police killings of young black men are common.

But most Americans wildly overestimate how often this happens, and how wrong they are is closely connected to their political beliefs, according to a recent study.

Traffic accidents kill about 23 in 100,000 men ages 25-29, with a slightly higher rate for blacks relative to whites. This is at least five times higher than police killings of black men of the same age, using any method of force.

Eight in 10 black survey respondents said they believe young black men are more likely to die in police shootings than in traffic accidents. (The black rate of deaths by police is three times higher than for whites, however.)

Blacks who voted for President Donald Trump in 2020 were far less likely to wrongly believe that police shootings claim more young black lives than traffic accidents, though most of them (53%) still incorrectly guessed, showing this belief is "not simply a function of ideology." Among those who voted for Joe Biden, 81% were wrong.

The demographic closest to getting the answer right was white Trump voters, only 15% of whom incorrectly believed police shootings killed more young black men. For white Biden voters, the figure was 53%, and about 10 points higher for highly educated liberal whites.

The surveys were conducted in November and December and disclosed in a report on "The Social Construction of Racism in the United States" by University of London politics professor Eric Kaufmann. He obtained his data on police killings and traffic deaths from science journals and a highway insurance nonprofit.

Kaufmann found that ideology, presidential vote and view on whether "white Republicans are racist" had an even greater effect than race on a person's answer to the question.

Unusually, education level made virtually no difference in how black respondents answered: 78% of non-college graduates and 76% of college graduates said police shootings killed more young black men than traffic accidents. 

White (70%) and black (95%) respondents who agreed "white Republicans are racist" were the farthest off. Kaufmann said his findings are in line with a recent survey series by the Skeptic Research Center, which found "very liberal" Americans believed police killed at least 1,000 unarmed black men in 2019 — "a likely error of at least an order of magnitude."

Black Biden voters, meanwhile, were twice as likely as black Trump voters to say they experienced more racism under the Trump administration than under President Obama. Black Trump voters reported "a consistent level of racism" under the two administrations.

This particular survey, conducted right after the November election, was designed to catch voters who gave different answers to the same question after "partisan prompts."

The first question about racism asked black respondents how often they experienced it "in your daily life." About a third of each candidate's voters said they experienced racism at least monthly.

“Much later in the 80-question” survey, Kaufmann asked how often they experienced racism in their daily lives in the Obama versus Trump administrations. Biden voters, "the vast majority" of the sample, were now twice as likely to report monthly racism under Trump (42%) as under Obama (21%).

"The fact that Biden but not Trump voters deviated from their initial answer (when neither Trump nor Obama was mentioned) suggests that Democrats are largely responsible for changing their answers in response to partisan cues," the report said.

The black respondents who agreed "white Republicans are racist" were also three times likelier (56%) to say they experienced racism under Trump than those who disagreed.