But while whites are less likely to want to discuss matters of race – and many feel a sense of unease doing so – black Americans, as Obama said, “[are] looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that – that doesn’t go away.”
“We know that there is a long history, that the historical relationship between black people and law enforcement at the federal, state, and local level is contentious,” says Lester K. Spence, associate professor of political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “That’s why the gap exists.”
Such experiences inform reactions to the case, and help explain why 86 percent of African-Americans polled say blacks and other minorities do not receive equal treatment in the criminal justice system, according to The Washington Post/ABC News poll. Far fewer whites – 41 percent – say this is the case.
“White America believes the US is colorblind, and the extension of this belief system is that the rule of law is applied equally to everyone regardless of race,” says Dr. Charles Gallagher, chair of the sociology department at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “Black America’s experience with race-based discrimination, as President Obama pointed out, is not an academic discussion but a lived experience.”
Some of the disparity is also reflected in partisan differences among whites, however. Among white Republicans, 70 percent say they approve of the Zimmerman verdict, compared with only 30 percent of white Democrats, according to The Washington Post/ABC News poll. Among all white respondents, a third said the shooting was justified and a third said it was not. (The other third didn’t know enough to have an opinion.)
But many white and some black observers have argued that radically differing experiences within the criminal justice system simply reflect radically differing levels of crime among blacks and whites. This debate remains the focus of New York’s controversial stop-and-frisk laws, a tactic police use overwhelmingly in minority neighborhoods, but rarely in white neighborhoods.