Young people of color mistrust police and legal system, report finds

Black youth are far more likely than other young people to have negative experiences with the police, and believe overwhelmingly that the American legal system does not treat all groups equally, according to a new report from the Black Youth Project at the University of Chicago.

The report by the Black Youth Project, a national collaboration based at UChicago’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, considers youth survey data from 2014 and 2009 in light of recent cases of racial tension, including the deaths of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin.

“Since 18-year-old Michael Brown’s death by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., the media have focused on racial tension among residents there, but this situation is nothing new in black communities,” said Cathy J. Cohen, the David and Mary Winton Green Professor of Political Science, who co-authored the report with Jon C. Rogowski, assistant professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis. “The Michael Brown tragedy and those like it are indicators of systemic injustices that have resulted in long-standing tensions between law enforcement and the black community,” Cohen said.

The data in the report came from the 2009 Mobilization and Change survey, which included 3,202 respondents, and the 2014 Black Youth Project study, which surveyed 1,527 people between the ages of 18 and 29. The main findings include:

  • Black youth report the highest rate of harassment by the police (54.5 percent), nearly twice the rates of other young people.
  • Less than half of black youth (44.2 percent) trust the police, compared with 71.5 percent of white youth, 59.6 percent of Latino youth, and 76.1 percent of Asian American youth.
  • Substantially fewer black youth believe the police in their neighborhood are there to protect them (66.1 percent) compared to young people from other racial and ethnic groups.

“This data also showed us that young people nationwide view the legal system quite differently across racial groups,” said Rogowksi. “Although equal protection under the law is a key component of political equality and human rights, many young people of color do not believe that the legal system treats all groups fairly,” Rogowski said. 

Only about a quarter of black youth (26.8 percent) said the American legal system treats all groups equally. While a majority of black youth (60.2 percent) report feeling like full and equal citizens, that figure is the lowest among the groups surveyed.

“Sadly, these differences in experience and perception are not just results for academics to write about,” commented Cohen. “They are lived realities that literally cost too many young black people their lives.”