George Floyd’s death – an isolated incident or sign of broader problems?

It happened yet again.  Captured on video, the killing of another African American man at the hands of police.  The fatal encounter sparked waves of protest and violence across American cities.  While a majority of Americans support on-going protests, partisan disagreement lingers over the extent of the problem. 

Are deaths the result of isolated actions of a few rouge cops?  Or, are they a sign of larger systemic biases in our criminal justice system?    

Let’s first look at partisan reactions after a similar tragedy in Baltimore. 

Baltimore

On April 19, 2015 Freddie Gray, a 25-year old black man died while in police custody.  His passing inspired intense demonstrations that sought answers for what happened to Mr. Gray.  The demonstrations also spotlighted a long history of police brutality in Baltimore.  Finally, Baltimore was the latest in a string of similar deaths that had sparked outrage and protest in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City.    

In Baltimore, answers did not come quickly.  Peaceful protests sometimes erupted into violence – cars smashed and stores looted.  

In such instances, public officials typically condemn the violence while recognizing the need for police reform.  President Obama condemned the rioters in strong terms, calling them “criminals and thugs who tore up the place” Then he asked Americans to do some soul-searching, pointing to an array of issues that plagued poor communities and the extensive changes needed in education and criminal justice.   

Explaining events and behavior

We use causal attributions to explain why things occur.  An internal attribution says it is something about a person that caused the event/behavior.  It could be their character, their attitudes or dispositions.  In short we believe the person is responsible.  

Alternatively, external attributions say it is something about the environment that caused the event/behavior.  The social, political, or economic conditions compelled a person to act in a particular way.  Individuals cannot control these larger forces.      

Research shows Republicans and Democrats generally select different causal attributions across a host of issues. 

For example, Democrats attribute poverty to environmental causes – institutional biases and capitalism.  Poor people are victims of an unrelenting political and economic system.  Larger forces (lack of available jobs) limit opportunities and remove individual agency – hence, people are not responsible for their circumstances. 

Sympathy and assistance follows.  Democrats typically employ government to remedy the institutional biases and right systemic failures.     

Republicans, on the other hand, blame the individual – pointing to insufficient drive, bad decisions, and questionable character.  Here, we can see the strong presence of individualism – self-reliance and hard work brings rewards.  Circumstances do not determine success.  People can excel with the proper motivation and experience.  Government is not the answer.   

What caused the unrest in Baltimore and other places?

During the protests in Baltimore, Americans considered the factors that contributed a ‘great deal’ to the violence and unrest.  Three in four Republicans selected the factor that included  individual motives of demonstrators – people taking advantage to engage in criminal activity – compared to just over half of Democrats. 

In contrast, nearly a majority of Democrats felt the environment – poverty and lack of opportunity – contributed a great deal to the civil unrest.  Not even a third of Republicans felt that way.     

causesRepublican %Democrat % gap
people taking advantage to engage
in criminal behavior
7554+22
poverty and lack of opportunity in
neighborhood
3048-18
Pew Center Research 2015 

Isolated incidents or sign of broader problems?

The events in New York, Ferguson, and then Baltimore led many Americans to attribute deaths to an external cause.  Nearly half of respondents believed the death of black men at the hands of police in Ferguson, New York, and Baltimore were “part of a broader pattern of how police treat black Americans.”    This was a significant increase over prior years.      

However, as the graph below shows, partisan divisions persisted.  Not even a quarter of Republicans blamed broader problems.  Rather nearly 70% considered the deaths isolated incidents – a narrow causal attribution centered on a few bad apples in police departments.     

Alternatively, the string of deaths reinforced Democrats tendency to blame environmental circumstances; 6 in 10 Democrats believed the deaths signaled broader problems with the police.  Less than a third of Democrats attributed deaths to isolated incidents.     

Changes

In the weeks and months ahead, there will be plenty of opinion surveys that probe people’s understanding of the tragic events.   Polls released just this week indicate genuine movement.  

There is widespread sympathy for protestors and an increasing realization by both parties that racial discrimination and other problems plague the criminal justice system.     

Even the causes ascribed show change.  Since the Baltimore case, Democrats have moved strongly toward external attributions.   Nearly 25% more Democrats now believe the deaths of African Americans during police encounters are a sign of broader problems.

Importantly, Independents are following Democrats.  Sixty-six percent think deaths stem from broader factors, a 15% increase from the Baltimore survey.

causesRepublican %Democrat %Independent %
isolated incidents681634
A sign of broader problems328466
Source:  YouGov poll May 29-30 2020.

Causes and Policy  

Ultimately, what we think caused an event shapes the actions of elected officials.  If the public identifies systemic issues – external attributions, significant changes are in order.  Blaming the system creates momentum to change the system.   

This is what Democrats – and increasingly Independents – are insisting.  George Floyd’s death was another heartbreak on a long list of tragic encounters with police.  The problems of police brutality and institutional racism are long-standing and require sweeping reforms.     

If, however, people focus blame narrowly to specific police officers or departments, the momentum for reform slows.  Blaming individuals preserves the status quo.     

This is the case for many political issues.  Noted public policy scholar Deborah Stone says it well:    

The different sides in an issue act as if they are trying to find the “true” cause, but they are always struggling to influence which idea is selected to guide policy.  Causal Stories and the Formation of Policy Agendas.  

Notice how she quotes true.  Politics turns on what we believe – or what we want to believe – to be true.  Policies follow.  

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