Ferguson protesters say police see black people as ‘thugs’

"The protesters did not view police brutality and discrimination as an isolated phenomenon," says Jennifer Cobbina. "Rather, they believed that it's reflective of broader social inequality and discrimination in society at large." (Credit: Justin Norman/Flickr)

Most of the protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, say they believe police view black people as worthless thugs and white people as innocent and superior—perceptions that true or not—affect police-community relations in a time of persistent racial unrest.

For a new study, criminologists conducted in-depth interviews with demonstrators in Ferguson following the Aug. 9, 2014, fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer.

The study, published in the Journal of Crime and Justice, is one of the first to investigate whether and to what extent African Americans associate people of color to crime, known as racial typification.

“The protesters did not view police brutality and discrimination as an isolated phenomenon,” says Jennifer Cobbina, associate professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University. “Rather, they believed that it’s reflective of broader social inequality and discrimination in society at large.”

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The interviews with 81 protesters—75 black and six white—included a question of whether blacks were more likely to engage in crime than whites. Past research has consistently demonstrated that white Americans strongly associate blacks with crime and overestimate the proportion of crime committed by people of color.

But most Ferguson protesters felt that whites and blacks commit crime equally, with blacks more likely to commit petty crimes and whites more likely to commit white-collar crimes.

As for perceptions about law enforcement, one black woman said police “view us as dogs. Our lives are [considered] worthless. They don’t think that we matter.” A black male responded police see black males as “suspects first, civilians second.”

“The majority of the respondents did not racially typify crime, but they strongly believed the police did,” Cobbina says. “Whether it’s true or not, the very fact that they’re perceiving this is obviously going to have an effect on police-community relations.”

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The findings suggest people would like to see greater efforts to improve police-community relations, discontinue racial profiling, and tackle the social, economic, and political issues that contribute to violence in urban and suburban neighborhoods, such as unemployment and poverty.

“The social unrest in Ferguson,” study authors write, “was not simply in response to the death of Michael Brown, but rather widespread racial and social injustice on the part of the police and larger society that produced the conditions in which this young man was killed.”

Researchers from Indiana University and the University of Massachusetts Lowell are coauthors of the study.

Source: Michigan State University