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Who Believes that the Police Use Excessive Force? Centering Racism in Research on Perceptions of the Police

Objectives Police use of excessive—even fatal—force is a significant social issue, one at the symbolic heart of the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement. However, a substantial number of Americans—disproportionately White—tend to minimize the prevalence of this issue. We ...

Published onSep 07, 2022
Who Believes that the Police Use Excessive Force? Centering Racism in Research on Perceptions of the Police


Objectives. Police use of excessive—even fatal—force is a significant social issue, one at the symbolic heart of the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement. However, a substantial number of Americans—disproportionately White—tend to minimize the prevalence of this issue. We seek to explain differences in these views. Methods. We look at whether experiences with the police, politics, and three measures of racial attitudes explain differences in views of the prevalence of police use of excessive force, and we specifically test for whether these factors help explain racial stratification in these views. Using data from three different recent national surveys collected by the American National Election Studies, we attempt to replicate our findings within this paper. Results. Views of police use of force are highly stratified by race and politics and racial attitudes—in particular racial resentment—play an important role in explaining these differences. Conclusions. If we hope to address this important issue, it matters that many people minimize its existence, and it matters why they minimize it. We argue that centering race in crime and justice research necessarily means centering racism. 

There are substantial issues with the way justice is administered in the U.S., and most of these issues are racially disparate; Black Americans in particular are disproportionately likely to be exposed to the most toxic aspects of the justice system (e.g. Gelman, Fagan, and Kiss 2007; Mauer 2011; Nix et al. 2017). For these reasons, it is important to center race in thinking about criminal justice solutions: solutions that fail to center race may fail to address racial inequalities and injustices.

However, simply centering race is not enough. Racial differences in measures of crime and justice outcomes have been featured prominently in social science research since at least the progressive era (Muhammad 2010). Historically, explanations for racial differences have sometimes identified biological or cultural deficiencies as a cause (Rafter, Posick, and Rocque 2016; Small, Harding, and Lamont 2010). Work that is agnostic about the explanation for observed racial differences leave the door open to these interpretations. For this reason, it is critical to explicitly identify why race matters: because of racism (Graves Jr. and Goodman 2021).   

Race matters to crime and justice outcomes not because of anything intrinsic to race, but because of racism (e.g. Braga and Drakulich 2018; Drakulich and Rodriguez‐Whitney 2018). Historical and systemic racism help explain problematic criminal justice policies and practices (Alexander 2020; Hinton 2016; Muhammad 2010). But these structures are maintained—and reform efforts are obstructed—by a specific racist logic held by many Americans. This logic dismisses the historical relevance of chattel slavery and legal segregation and discrimination as well as the contemporary relevance of the discriminatory policies and institutions birthed from this history (Bobo, Kluegel, and Smith 1997; Bonilla-Silva 2018). 

This racial logic shapes how many Americans view crime and justice issues. Racial affect and attitudes influence support for punitive policies and opposition to policies aimed at ameliorating economic inequalities (Bobo and Johnson 2004; Drakulich 2015b; Johnson 2008; Unnever and Cullen 2010). They also influence how Americans understand, in a more basic and fundamental sense, crime and economic inequalities as issues (e.g. Drakulich 2015a). Thus, the issue is not just that some Americans may oppose specific criminal justice solutions, it is that many Americans minimize, or do not even recognize that these problems exist.1

Public perceptions of the police provide a critical case study of this issue with particular contemporary relevance. Criminologists have been interested in perceptions of the police since at least August Vollmer’s era (Brown and Reed Benedict 2002:543). A series of systematic reviews of the literature—each building off the last—identify race as an important determinant of views of the police (Brown and Reed Benedict 2002; Decker 1985; Peck 2015), but do not mention racism as a reason why race may matter. In other words, the literature has tended to center race but not racism.2 By not identifying racism directly as an explanation, the door is left open to other explanations, including ones that problematically imply cultural deficiencies: accusations of an anti-police sentiment that can be seen in discussions of a ‘stop snitching’ culture or a ‘war on cops.’ A focus on racism as an explanation for why race matters also encourages us to reframe the question: not why Black Americans tend to be more likely to perceive problems in policing, but why White Americans tend to have less critical views.

The value of centering racism is even more salient in the midst of substantial public attention to policing issues. The use of force—sometimes deadly force—by police officers is a core concern raised by organizers and others in the Black Lives Matter era (Black Lives Matter n.d.; Cobbina 2019; Lowery 2016). But, as with public opinion about other aspects of the justice system (Gramlich 2019), Americans are likely to differ in their views of how much of a problem the police use of excessive force really is. This is a crucial link between public perceptions of the police and the possibility of reform, what work on social movements describes as a problem identification frame (Benford and Snow 2000). To understand public opinion about the prevalence of this problem, we need to center both race and racism—asking whether there are average racial differences in these views, as there are for other perceptions of the police, and, critically, asking whether there are racial differences in these views because of racism.

To illustrate the roles of race and racism in public views of police use of force, we ask two broad questions. First, we ask what explains differences in public views of this issue, exploring roles for police contact, politics, and, most centrally, three measures of racial attitudes that capture different dimensions of racism. Specifically, we explore the potential role of negative racial affect, violent crime stereotypes, and racial resentment—a racial ideology that justifies status quo inequalities through a rejection of historical and contemporary injustices and a preference for explanations for inequalities that focus on Black deficiencies. Second, noting the racial stratification in these views, we explore what seems to explain differences in views between non-Latinx Black and White and Latinx Americans,3 considering differences in experience with the police, politics, and racist views.4 We do this using data from three separate recent national surveys, all conducted by the American National Election Studies (ANES), allowing us to attempt to replicate our key findings within this paper. 

This study makes several unique contributions. While a number of studies have examined support for police use of force (e.g. Carter and Corra 2016; Johnson and Kuhns 2009), we examine a problem identification frame: people’s perception of the prevalence of police use of unnecessary force. We also compare multiple dimensions of racial attitudes and directly explore and test for mediation effects—whether these factors appear to explain the racial stratification in views of the police. Finally, we examine these issues in the new context established in the wake of a massive social movement dedicated in part to this specific issue.


The police are the most visible and proximate representatives of the justice system. They wield extraordinary discretionary power. This includes the unique power to use force—including lethal force—against citizens (Bittner 1970). Research on police use of force is hindered by several factors, including definitional issues (e.g. Garner, Maxwell, and Heraux 2002; Prenzler, Porter, and Alpert 2013), officers being unlikely to report the use of force (Phillips 2010) and other biases in what information enters police administration records (e.g. Knox, Lowe, and Mummolo 2019). Additionally, police officers rarely face criminal charges for excessive uses of force from prosecutors who otherwise rely professionally on close relationships with the police (e.g. Gonzalez Van Cleve 2017; Jackman and Barrett 2020) and are generally shielded from civil suits by a qualified immunity (e.g. Schwartz 2014). 

Surveys conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics find that the majority of respondents who had force used against them by the police felt that the amount of force used was excessive: nearly three-quarters in 2008 and just over half in 2018 (Eith and Durose 2011; Harrell and Davis 2020).5 From 2002-2011, three-quarters of those who had physical force against them in their most recent contact reported that it was excessive, 87 percent reported the police did not act properly, and the number was higher for many specific kinds of serious force, including being grabbed or pushed, hit or kicked, or having a gun pointed at them (Hyland, Langton, and Davis 2015). And these surveys miss the views of those experiencing fatal use of force. The number of people who die at the hands of the police in the U.S. is substantially higher than in many other countries: 12 deaths per hundred thousand arrests versus 2 deaths in the UK or 5 in Australia for the same number of arrests (Picheta and Pettersson 2020). 

There are also biases in who is likely to experience police use of force. Black men have the highest chance of becoming a victim of police use of force, including lethal force (DeVylder, Oh, et al. 2017; Edwards, Lee, and Esposito 2019; Eith and Durose 2011; Harrell and Davis 2020; Nix et al. 2017; Prenzler et al. 2013; Ross 2015; Ross, Winterhalder, and McElreath 2021; Tregle, Nix, and Alpert 2019). Community characteristics, including the racial composition, also play a role (Holmes and Smith 2012; Lee 2016; Shjarback 2018). In assessing police interactions and arrests from 2015 to 2017, Tregele and colleagues (2019) find that Black Americans have an increased chance of being fatally shot by police in all three years examined in their study. Police use of force is one of the leading causes of death for young men of color (Edwards et al. 2019).6

Police use of force matters for these reasons. People’s physical and mental health, along with their lives, are at stake. People who have had these kinds of negative experiences with the police are more worried about the police specifically and have higher levels of depression and anxiety overall, an association that is strongest among Black and Latinx Americans (Alang, McAlpine, and McClain 2021; DeVylder, Oh, et al. 2017; Graham, Haner, et al. 2020). Victims of police violence are more likely to attempt suicide (DeVylder, Frey, et al. 2017). It also puts police lives in danger: protesters are more likely to feel justified in the use of force against the police when they see the police using unnecessary force (Maguire et al. 2020).

However, this also raises core questions about democracy and the social contract. Modern liberal democracy grounds the legitimacy of political authority in the consent of the governed (Rawls 2005). Conceptions of consent include those which demand direct roles for all citizens in the establishment of the laws that are to bind them (Rousseau and Cress 2011), those which sanction the selection of certain individuals as representatives of the will of whole constituencies (Locke and Macpherson 1980), and those which require merely that the rules and powers of the state be such that all affected citizens could rationally assent to them (Habermas and Rehg 2001). Under any of these rubrics, the state’s presumption of a monopoly on legitimate violence is grounded in the idea that those within the jurisdiction of its power have somehow assented to the terms of social cooperation it seeks to enforce. The police represent and embody the state’s claim to its monopoly on justified coercion, arguably as much as any other state institution, and this is precisely due to their unique prerogative with respect to the use of force and violence.7 The state’s claim to legitimate violence is thus most vulnerable to normative critique when actualized by law enforcement.

In short, excessive force—particularly when disproportionately inflicted upon certain groups and communities—serves as a visible violation of the core democratic principle that the government, and therefore the police, serve only at the will of (all) the people. Not surprisingly, then, coercive contact with the justice system is marginalizing: people’s experiences with the police shape their broader views of the government and the civic body, as well as their participation in it (e.g. Drakulich et al. 2017; Lerman and Weaver 2014). 

Perceptions of police use of force also matter for these reasons. People’s views of the police also affect their political participation (Drakulich et al. 2020). As described above, this matters for the prospects of reform. Although legitimate questions exist about the exact ways that public opinion matter (Blumer 1948; Bourdieu 1979; Drakulich and Kirk 2016), and the nature of public opinion about justice issues in particular (Cullen, Fisher, and Applegate 2000), there is evidence that public opinion does matter to justice policy (Pickett 2019). In fact, opinion polls can be used to help justify or legitimize policy proposals (Bourdieu 1979; Frost 2010), and accordingly public opinion on these issues is the target of political actors collective framing processes (Benford and Snow 2000; Drakulich 2015a).

Past research has examined a wide range of different kinds of perceptions of the police, including perceptions of police racial biases (Weitzer and Tuch 2002), police misconduct or corruption (Dowler and Zawilski 2007; Weitzer and Tuch 2004), police injustice (Hagan, Shedd, and Payne 2005), trust and legitimacy (Brunson and Miller 2006; Tyler 2005), and satisfaction and efficacy (Dowler and Sparks 2008; Drakulich and Crutchfield 2013). In general, views of the police are highly stratified along racial lines (Peck 2015; Posick, Rocque, and McDevitt 2013; Wu 2014). There are large differences in particular between White and Black Americans in each of these different dimensions of views of the police (e.g. Brunson and Weitzer 2009; Hagan et al. 2005; Johnson et al. 2017; Warren 2011; Weitzer 2000; Weitzer and Tuch 2002). Black and Latinx Americans are substantially more likely to express fears about police encounters than White Americans (Graham, Haner, et al. 2020)—in fact, Black Americans express more concerns about violent victimization by the police than by other citizens (Pickett, Graham, and Cullen 2021). Research generally finds Latinx Americans are significantly more likely than non-Latinx White Americans to believe the police use excessive force, but, reflecting the racial hierarchy described by Peterson and Krivo (2010), generally fall somewhere between the views of White and Black Americans (Buckler and Unnever 2008; Callanan and Rosenberger 2011; Graziano and Gauthier 2019), with added variation among Latinx Americans who identify as White or Black (Buckler and Unnever 2008). Notably, cooperation between ICE and police departments appears to have had toxic effects on views of the police among Latinx Americans (Menjívar et al. 2018). 

A number of studies have looked specifically at views of police use of force (e.g. Jefferis, Butcher, and Hanley 2011; Mullinix, Bolsen, and Norris 2020; Weitzer 2002). As with other kinds of perceptions of the police, perceptions of police use of force are racially stratified. Non-Latinx White Americans are less likely to believe the police frequently use more force than is necessary (Buckler and Unnever 2008; Callanan and Rosenberger 2011; Jefferis et al. 1997; Kaminski and Jefferis 1998; Trahan and Russell 2017; Tuch and Weitzer 1997; Weitzer and Tuch 2004), and are more supportive of the use of force (Arthur and Case 1994; Girgenti-Malone et al. 2017; Mourtgos and Adams 2020).


We investigate two broad questions about public views of police use of force. First, we ask what explains differences in public views of this issue, exploring roles for police contact and politics in addition to our central interest in racist attitudes. Second, noting the racial stratification in these views, we explore what seems to explain differences in views between Latinx and non-Latinx Black and White Americans—a question often implied but rarely directly explored in prior work. Here, we set up each of these potential explanations in general and in their potential for explaining the racial stratification in views, and we describe prior research on the relationship to perceptions of police use of force where it exists. 

Perhaps the most obvious potential explanation is that people’s view of the police—and their views of the police use of force in particular, come from direct experiences with the police. Experiences with the police are relevant to views of the police generally, including both personal experiences (Brunson 2007; Brunson and Weitzer 2009; Callanan and Rosenberger 2011; Dowler and Sparks 2008; Gau and Brunson 2010; Hagan et al. 2005; Weitzer and Tuch 2002, 2004, 2005; Wortley, Hagan, and Macmillan 1997) and the vicarious experiences of families and friends (e.g. Callanan and Rosenberger 2011; Gau and Brunson 2010; Warren 2011). Evidence on the effect on prior experiences with the police on perceptions of police use of force specifically is more mixed (Girgenti-Malone et al. 2017; Jefferis et al. 2011), but there is some evidence that a prior arrest increases a person’s feeling that police use excessive force in the local area (Callanan and Rosenberger 2011), and that the experience of being disrespected or insulted by an officer increased perception of police brutality specifically against minorities (Buckler and Unnever 2008). Research in the juvenile justice system reveals perceptions that the police frequently use unnecessary force against youth of color (Feinstein 2015).

Beyond these direct experiences, however, perceptions of police use of force may be associated with political identities and racial attitudes. Given public attention to the issue of police use of force in the Black Lives Matter Era, public opinion about this issue is itself the target of active and contested collective action framing efforts (Benford and Snow 2000; Goffman 1974). In other words, these views are likely to be at least in part social and political constructions (e.g. Baranauskas and Drakulich 2018; Beckett and Sasson 2004; Berger and Luckmann 1990; Chermak and Weiss 2005; Ericson 1989; Kasinsky 1995; Rafter 1990).

Political attention to the issue of the police in general has been sharply partisan in the Black Lives Matter Era (e.g. Drakulich et al. 2017, 2020; Drakulich and Denver 2022; Taylor 2016). People tend to adopt policy views consistent with their political identification (Lenz 2012). Political actors may also seek to actively influence public views of the police through framing processes. One important framing process is the elevation or demotion of the importance of particular issues (Benford and Snow 2000). Thus, some political actors may try to draw attention to police use of force as a common issue while others may try to portray it as extremely uncommon. However, political identities may also be endogenous to racial attitudes (Drakulich 2015a; Matsueda et al. 2011). Historically, the Republican ‘southern strategy’ was an explicit effort to recruit voters uncomfortably with changing race relations to the party (Beckett and Sasson 2004; Kinder and Sanders 1996; Maxwell and Shields 2019; Tonry 2011). More recently, racial attitudes were associated with vote choice in the 2008 election (e.g. Krupnikov and Piston 2015), the rise of the tea party (e.g. Hochschild 2016; Tope, Pickett, and Chiricos 2015), and the 2016 election (Drakulich et al. 2017, 2020; Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck 2018).

Prior research has found political identities to be relevant to views of the police in general. Those who identify either as Republican or conservative hold generally more pro-police views and are less likely to believe the police act in biased ways (Cao, Stack, and Sun 1998; Fine, Rowan, and Simmons 2019; Matsueda and Drakulich 2009; Pickett, Nix, and Roche 2018; Zamble and Annesley 1987). These identities are also associated with views that the police do not frequently use excessive force (Callanan and Rosenberger 2011; Wozniak, Drakulich, and Calfano 2020) and support or approve of police use of force (Dennison 2018; Gerber and Jackson 2017; Johnson and Kuhns 2009; Mourtgos and Adams 2020; Silver and Pickett 2015). 

Finally, our key argument is that racism may be key to understanding perceptions of police use of force. Several distinct dimensions of racial attitudes may be relevant. Importantly, the question we are interested in here is ostensibly race-neutral: whether the police use more force than is necessary in general—not explicitly or disproportionately toward Black Americans. Of course, people’s views of crime and justice are in general frequently viewed through the lens of race (e.g. Drakulich 2015a; Peffley and Hurwitz 2010), and the Black Lives Matter social movement has sought to explicitly raise awareness of police use of force against Black Americans (Black Lives Matter n.d.; e.g. Cobbina 2019; Lowery 2016). In this light, views of police use of force are likely colored by views of race. 

If, when people are estimating the likelihood of police use of force, they are imagining it being used against Black Americans, several dimensions of racial attitudes may be relevant.8 First, people may simply be motivated by negative racial affect to disbelieve that the police frequently use more force than necessary. Second, those who hold racial crime stereotypes of Black Americans—which are pervasive (e.g. Drakulich 2012; Russell-Brown 1998)9—may be more likely to view any force used as necessary rather than excessive. Third, estimates of the prevalence of police excessive force may be the product of more instrumental racial views related to group position and threat (Blumer 1958; Bobo 1999). Specifically, we focus on a racial logic that began to emerge after the Civil Rights Movement challenged the more explicit racial logic behind the laws that codified racial discrimination during the Jim Crow Era (Bobo et al. 1997; Jackman and Muha 1984; Sears and McConahay 1973). This new racial logic, described as modern, symbolic (Sears 1988), laissez-faire (Bobo et al. 1997), or colorblind racism (Bonilla-Silva 2018) operates by explicitly eschewing race, emphasizing individualism and meritocracy, while simultaneously and intentionally minimizing or dismissing the special barriers faced by Black Americans that explain unequal outcomes. Importantly, this racial logic has a similar effect as the older more explicit racial logic: the justification of persistent racial inequalities (Bobo et al. 1997; Bonilla-Silva 2018). 

In the substantial history of research on perceptions of the police, racism has received far less attention than other factors. A linked string of systematic reviews of the literature on perceptions of the police—each building on the last—have identified race as a major predictor of these views but do not mention racism (Brown and Reed Benedict 2002; Decker 1985; Peck 2015). Thus, the smaller number of studies that have connected some dimension of racial views to views of the police are most relevant to our work. More broadly, this work has considered several dimensions of perceptions of the police, including whether the police are biased (Matsueda and Drakulich 2009; Peffley and Hurwitz 2010), general confidence in the police (Wozniak 2016), and law enforcement spending (Drakulich 2015b; Matsueda and Drakulich 2009). Previous work has also connected racial attitudes directly to views of police use of force. Johnson and Kuhns (2009) find that White respondents who hold violent racial stereotypes of Black Americans were more likely to favor police use of force against a Black teenager and less likely to favor it against a White teenager. Barkan and Cohn (1998) found that negative racial stereotypes (though not about crime) were more likely to approve of excessive force, though a measure of racial affect was unrelated. Silver and Pickett (2015) connect a general measure of racial prejudice to support for excessive force. Carter and Cora (2016) found that people higher in racial resentment were more likely to support police use of force (also Carter, Corra, and Jenks 2016; Simon, Moltz, and Lovrich 2021).   

Our interest is not just in whether these factors—police experiences, politics, and racial attitudes—explain perceptions of police use of force, but particularly whether they help explain racial differences in these views. To do so they need to be racially stratified as well. As described above, Black Americans have more negative experiences with the police (e.g. Crutchfield et al. 2012). There are also substantial differences in political identification, with Black Americans substantially more likely to identify as Democrats, non-Latinx White Americans more likely to lean Republican, and Latinx voters in between. There is also substantial stratification of racial attitudes, with anti-Black attitudes being most common among White people and least common among Black people, although of course there is substantial heterogeneity in these views within all racial groups.10

This study makes several unique contributions over prior work.  First, our interest is in a problem identification frame: people’s perception of the prevalence of police use of unnecessary force. Prior work on racial attitudes focuses on predicting support for police use of force rather than perceptions of whether it is common (focusing on a prognostic rather than a problem identification frame as we do)—in fact, most use the same questions from the GSS (Arthur and Case 1994; Barkan and Cohn 1998; Carter and Corra 2016; Carter et al. 2016; Johnson and Kuhns 2009; Silver and Pickett 2015; Simon et al. 2021). Work on the role of experiences with the police and political identities also use different outcomes.11 Second, in addition to using different questions about police use of force, research focusing on the role of racial attitudes also rarely compares multiple dimensions of such attitudes.12 Third, although a variety of studies note racial stratification in views of police use of force and explore roles for police contact, politics, and racial attitudes—often implicitly discussing the capacity of these explanations to explain the racial stratification—this mediation effect has not been directly tested. 

Finally, many studies of perceptions of police use of force use data that were either collected before the emergence of the Black Lives Matter Movement overall, or before the pivotal mass protests in the spring and summer of 2020.13 This is significant given that a central concern of the movement is raising awareness of problematic instances of police use of force, and in particular the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of the police. Although many Americans became aware of the movement during protests in 2014, 2015, and 2016 (Drakulich et al. 2021), the spring and summer of 2020 witnessed a new scale of attention to the movement, when perhaps the largest mass demonstration in American history took place, despite an ongoing pandemic, after the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd (Buchanan, Bui, and Patel 2020). The sheer number and diversity of those involved in the protests in 2020 suggest a possible change in public views of the movement and its issues. Support for the movement reached a new high during this period (Civiqs 2021). In other words, it is possible that public views of these issues are fundamentally different after this massive and unprecedented series of protests. However, the answer to this question may not be straightforward. In a study of earlier waves of the protest, Cobbina (2019) reports a heterogeneity in the motivations and long-term commitments of the protesters. The summer of 2020 also witnessed a surge in renewed opposition to the movement, a possible sign of backlash (Civiqs 2021). All of this suggests a new look at public views of police use of force is warranted. 


To explore public views of police use of excessive force we utilize three recent surveys conducted by the American National Election Studies (ANES). Recent data are key to answering this question given the increased public and media attention to police use of force in the Black Lives Matter era. The surveys differed in their design, sampling strategies, and in the wording and availability of some questions. This multiple dataset strategy allows us to attempt to replicate the results within a single paper and protect against false positives (Murayama, Pekrun, and Fielder 2014; and see Pickett et al. 2012; Quillian and Pager 2001; Roche, Pickett, and Gertz 2016).

The primary data come from the 2020 ANES Time Series Study (2020 TS), conducted in two waves in the months before and after the 2020 Presidential election (American National Election Studies 2021). This is the main ANES survey, conducted during presidential elections since 1948. The survey includes a smaller re-sample of participants in the 2016 survey and a larger “fresh” sample of new respondents. The key measures of interest for this analysis come from the post-election wave, which was conducted in November and December of 2020, and for which 7400 interviews were conducted. Respondents were randomly sampled based on mailing address for the non-institutionalized 18-plus population of the US.14

The ANES 2019 Pilot Study (2019 PS) was conducted in December of 2019 in the midst of the presidential primaries (American National Election Studies 2020a). The survey was conducted over the internet drawing on respondents selected from the YouGov panel by sample matching, using prior estimates of the U.S. population along the lines of gender, age, race, education, and geographic region.15 All analyses use included weights to match population characteristics for 2016 presidential choice, gender, age, race/ethnicity, and education. The main question of interest—perceptions of police use of force—was only asked of a randomly selected subset of half of the respondents, meaning the effective sample size is 1504. 

The ANES 2020 Exploratory Testing Study (2020 ET) was conducted in early April of 2020 (American National Election Studies 2020b). The study used non-probability sampling methods, collecting 3,080 surveys from three separate opt-in online panels. Respondents were asked whether they had previously taken the survey and only the 2708 who had not were included in the analyses.

The surveys were conducted around particularly eventful times in American history. The 2019 PS was conducted before both the COVID pandemic and the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. The 2020 ET was conducted during the earliest months of the pandemic, after Breonna Taylor was killed, but before George Floyd’s death set off a massive wave of protests. The 2020 TS was collected after a full summer of protests, in the midst of a contentious presidential election, though before the January 6th, 2021, insurrection. The result is that these data speak to a particular historical moment in time, which, as we point out above, is an advantage in that the events of 2020 may have fundamentally altered public views of police use of force. 


Perceptions of Police Use of Force

In each study, people’s perceptions of the frequency of police use of force are captured through a simple question: “How often do you think police officers use more force than is necessary?” Respondents answer on a 5-item scale from never to all the time. Importantly, the measures capture perceptions of police use of force in general, rather than racial disparities in this force, making them suitable for our interest in assessing the influence of racism on these views even when the questions do not explicitly reference race. Table 1 presents means, standard deviations, and the number of missing cases for each of the measures across each of the three surveys.   

Figure 1 presents the proportion of respondents who gave each of the five answers separately for three race-ethnic groups with the largest number of respondents for the 2020 TS study (the other two surveys have similar results). As discussed above, although precise estimates of the proportion of the time that officers use more force than is necessary are not available, those who experience police use of force judge it to be excessive the majority of the time.16 As Figure 1 suggests, more than half of White respondents reported the belief that the police never or rarely used excessive force, compared to around a quarter of Latinx respondents and just over ten percent of black respondents reporting these same beliefs. For White respondents, the median answer was “rarely,” for Latinx respondents the median answer was “about half the time,” and for Black respondents it was “most of the time.” Wilcoxon-Mann-Whitney tests suggested these differences were highly significant (p<.001).

Police and Criminal Justice System Contact

The studies use somewhat different questions to capture experiences with the police and the criminal justice system. All three studies ask whether the respondent has ever been arrested, a direct and personal opportunity to observe the police conducting a routine task that can involve the use of force. The 2020 TS also includes a question about more recent (within the last year) personal or vicarious experiences with being stopped and questioned by the police. In the 2020 TS, 20 percent of respondents report ever being arrested, and 16 percent report being stopped and questioned in the last year. 


To capture political ideology, each study uses two measures. The first captures conservatism on a 7-point scale ranging from strong liberal to strong conservative. The second captures party identification on a 7-point scale ranging from strong Democrat to strong Republican. In the 2020 TS, the average respondent was in the middle of both scales, although slightly more conservative than Republican. 

For the 2020 TS, we also add one additional measure, a measure capturing preferences for small government. Respondents were asked which statement—“the less government, the better” or “there are more things the government should be doing”—comes closer to their own views, and in a follow up, how strongly they feel that way, allowing the creation of a 6-item scale.  


The studies capture three different kinds of racial attitudes—each capturing different dimensions of racism—potentially relevant to views of police use of force. Each study includes a basic measure of racial affect, captured using thermometer scales (Nelson 2008) on which respondents are asked to rate their feelings, separately, towards ‘Blacks’ and ‘Whites’ on scales from 0-100. We take the difference between the two creating a measure reflecting how much more coldly the respondent ranks ‘Blacks’ relative to ‘Whites.’ In the 2020 TS, the average respondent rated the two relatively equally (close to zero), but with substantial variability across respondents. 

The 2020 TS included a measure capturing violent crime stereotypes. Respondents were asked where they would rate “Whites” and “Blacks,” respectively, on 7-point scales from peaceful to violent. The resulting measure is the difference between these ratings, reflecting how much better they thought violence characterized Black relative to White people. A mean just above zero means the average respondent believed Black people were very slightly more violent than White people (Table 1). 

Finally, all three studies include a measure of racial resentment, which has been widely used in prior work (e.g. Kinder and Sanders 1996).17 The measure captures key dimensions of the modern racial ideology identified in work on symbolic, laissez-faire, and colorblind racism: the rejection of structural explanations for racial inequalities, the embrace of individualistic explanations, and a resentment of perceived line-cutting (e.g. Bobo et al. 1997; Bonilla-Silva 2018; Henry and Sears 2002; Hochschild 2016).18 There is variation in these views among respondents of all race-ethnic identities.19 The average respondent was in the middle of the scale, neither agreeing nor disagreeing on average with the statements.  Cronbach’s alphas suggest high reliability (.87 in the 2020TS, .89 in the 2019PS, and .79 in the 2020 ET).

Demographic and Biographical Controls

Both studies include a similar set of controls for alternative explanations that may be associated with basic demographic or biographical characteristics, including sex, age, marital status (those who are married or cohabitating and those who are separated, divorced, or widowed, with single people as the reference category), years of education, and income (in $1Ks coded from category midpoints). Our second major research question is what mediates the effect of race, and in particular the difference between White and Black Americans, but also the difference between Latinx and non-Latinx White and Black Americans. To this end we also include measures of self-identification as Black, Latinx, and Asian.20 In order to make non-Latinx White respondents the reference category, we also include a catch-all measure of those identifying as something else, but given the substantial heterogeneity of this measure, we do not recommend directly interpreting the coefficients for it. We are also not able to distinguish those identifying as Latinx and White from those identifying as Latinx and Black.


Missing data was relatively rare for most measures in each study (Table 1). In the 2020 TS, racial affect (6.4 percent), age (4 percent), income (2.6 percent) and crime stereotypes (2 percent) were missing the most data, with race, education, and conservative ideology all missing between 1 and 2 percent.  In the 2019 PS, only family income (12.7 percent) and party identification (3.6 percent) were missing for more than a trivial number (0.4 percent) of cases. In the 2020 ET, only education (2.5 percent), family income (2.1 percent), and racial affect (0.8 percent) had more than a trivial number (0.2 percent) of missing cases. To address missing data, we employed a multiple imputation strategy (Allison 2002) which does not depend on the assumption that data are missing completely at random, rather that the data are missing at random after controlling for other variables in the analysis. To this end, twenty data sets were imputed in a process that used all the variables from the analyses as well as an auxiliary variable to add information and increase efficiency using the mice package in R (van Buuren and Groothuis-Oudshoorn 2011; R Core Team 2019). Auxiliary variables included information on social class and racial attitudes in the 2020 TS, employment in the 2019 PS, and homeownership in the 2020 ET. Listwise-deleted results were substantively identical to those reported here (coefficients for key relationships did not differ in statistical significance or direction).  Additionally, only family income was missing in more than 1 percent of cases in all three samples (and racial stereotypes was missing 2 percent in the one study in which it was included), allowing us to use our three-sample replication to explore differences across datasets for variables in which greater or fewer numbers of cases were imputed.21

Based on the study designs, we are most confident generalizing findings from the 2020 TS (which employed a stratified random sampling design), and least confident in the 2020 ET, though there is value in running similar analyses with each of the surveys for the purposes of replication. The 2019 PS and 2020 ET are collected via non-probability sampling methods. In the 2019 PS, the sample matching selection procedure and weighting via a propensity score model mean that population inferences are possible based on the conditional ignorability assumption (e.g. Thompson and Pickett 2020). This is not the case for the 2020 ET, which drew on data from 3 opt-in panels without sample-matching. Inferences drawn from the matched sample are more likely to generalize than the non-matched (Graham, Pickett, and Cullen 2020).  However, in both cases we avoid making descriptive univariate inferences and instead focus on the relationship between variables (Baker et al. 2013; Thompson and Pickett 2020). 

The 2020 TS used a mixed-mode design including self-administered online surveys, live video interviews (face-to-face interviews were not possible because of the pandemic), and telephone interviews. Controls are added to all models identifying the telephone and video interviews, for which social desirability biases may be greater. The 2019 PS and 2020 ET were completed exclusively in a self-administered online mode. Web surveys can elicit more honest and less socially desirable responses, but also often suffer from lower engagement and ‘satisficing’ (Dillman, Smyth, and Christian 2014; e.g. Kreuter, Presser, and Tourangeau 2008; Liu and Wang 2015). The ANES employs a simple question asking respondents how seriously they took the survey. In each of the three surveys, around 80 percent of the respondents reported ‘always’ giving serious answers.  Also in each of the surveys, the second most common answer was that the respondent took the survey seriously ‘most of the time’ (ranging from 7 percent in the 2019 PS to 16 percent in the 2020 TS). Dropping less serious respondents represents a trade-off between internal and external validity (Berinsky, Margolis, and Sances 2014). Dropping non-serious respondents tends to skew the sample demographically, particularly with respect to age (Anduiza and Galais 2016). Thus, we follow the recommendations to balance internal and external validity by running all analyses using both the full and restricted samples (e.g. Berinsky et al. 2014). The two sets of analyses were substantively identical—coefficients for key relationships did not differ in statistical significance or direction—so we present results from the full data. 

The outcomes are captured as ordinal variables. The results from ordinal and linear models were substantively identical, so we present the latter for ease of interpretation.22 Although we use the data from all respondents, we focus for the sake of space on differences between the views of White and Black Americans and on the role of anti-Black racial attitudes in explaining those views, and also explore the views of Latinx Americans. The interpretation of these views among other people deserve their own theoretical and empirical set-up and framework (see Peck 2015 for a good list of examples of work that do this important work), something that is beyond what is possible to fit in this paper, but which we highly recommend more direct attention.

We explore whether a variety of factors mediate racial differences in views of police use of force. We test for the significance of the average causal mediation effects (the indirect effects) using the method suggested Imai, Keele, and Tingley (2011), bootstrapping 1000 samples for each of the 20 multiply imputed datasets (and including all the controls in models predicting the mediators) using the ‘mediation’ package in R (Tingley et al. 2014). Critically, rather than simply observing seeming changes in coefficients when stepping in mediators (see Mustillo, Lizardo, and McVeigh 2018), this allows a direct estimation of the mediation effect (and a confidence interval for that effect). Based on this, we present estimates and significance levels for the average causal mediation effects and the proportion mediated (of the total effect—direct effects can be observed in the models).


The analyses are cross-sectional. The arrest and police stops questions refer to prior experiences, and racial attitudes predicting views of the police is consistent with prior work (Carter and Corra 2016; Johnson and Kuhns 2009; Silver and Pickett 2015; Simon et al. 2021), but we encourage future confirmatory work using other methods. Controlling for political identification and preferences for small government address a Type I error concern that racial resentment may in part capture a non-racial political ideology. However, given the literatures that suggest these political identities and views may be in part endogenous to racial attitudes (e.g. Beckett and Sasson 2004; Bobo et al. 1997; Bonilla-Silva 2018; Gainous 2012; Tonry 2011), including them increases the risk of Type II errors. 


Our most basic interest is in the role that racial attitudes play in explaining racial differences in views of how frequently the police use more force than necessary. We answer this question in three stages. First, we estimate the size of the racial differences in these views overall, holding only basic socio-demographic differences constant. Second, we estimate the direct effect of racial attitudes on these views, controlling for other potential explanations related to police contact and political identification. Finally, we directly test our main question of whether racial attitudes explain why race matters, looking for evidence of mediation.

Are there racial differences in estimates of police use of excessive force?

Table 2 presents comparable answers for the first two questions for each of the three sets of data. For each, the first model (columns 1, 3, and 5) includes basic demographic and biographical controls and allows us to observe overall racial and ethnic differences in views of police use of force. In our main study (the 2020 TS), Black respondents were roughly one answer category higher than White respondents in their estimation of how frequently the police used more force than necessary, and these differences were highly significant in both replication surveys as well.23 Latinx respondents also had significantly higher estimates of the frequency of police use of excessive force than non-Latinx White respondents in two of the surveys. In short, there are substantial and significant differences in people’s estimates of how frequently the police used more force than necessary based on race and ethnicity.

Do racial attitudes influence estimates of police use of excessive force?

The second columns for each study (columns 2, 4, and 6 in Table 2) answers the second question about the direct effect of racial attitudes on these views. To investigate this key interest, we explored the role of three different dimensions of racial attitudes. Respondents who possess anti-Black affect—those who rated “blacks” more coldly than “whites”—were less likely to believe the police frequently used more force than necessary in two of the three studies (in the last it was significant before racial resentment was added). Those who felt racially resentful of Black Americans see police use of excessive force as substantially less prevalent. This effect is sizeable, with a standardized coefficient of .21 in the main study (the 2020TS) and .13 and .14 in the other two. 

Notably, these racial attitudes are significantly related to estimates of police use of excessive force even after controlling for two sets of alternative explanations that are also significantly related to these views (also included in columns 2, 4, and 6 in Table 2). In terms of contact with the police, those who had ever been arrested tended to believe police excessive force was more prevalent. This association was significant in each of the three studies, with standardized coefficients ranging from .06 to .11 across the studies. Additionally, though not surprisingly given the political (and highly partisan) attention to the issue of police use of force, political identification is related to views of the issue. Those who identify more strongly as conservative believed that excessive force was more rare in all three surveys, and those who identify more strongly as Republican believed it was more rare in two of the three. The magnitude of these effects varies across the studies (Republican has standardized coefficients ranging from .03 to .14 and conservative has standardized coefficients ranging from .07 to .13).    

Table 3 presents an alternative test of this same question about the direct effect of racial attitudes. While Table 2 presents directly comparable models replicated across the three different surveys, the 2020TS survey also allows us to consider three other potential factors. Thus, Table 3 presents the results that include these additional measures, with the three additional measures in bold.  First, we consider one additional measure of a racial attitude. Racial violence stereotypes do not appear associated with perceptions of police use of force after controlling for the other factors in the model (particularly racial resentment). We also include additional controls for both of the alternative explanations we consider: police contact and politics. In contrast to the experience of an arrest, less consequential contact—being stopped and questioned—did not appear associated with perceptions of force. Those who prefer smaller government were less likely to believe police excessive force was common. Once again, the sizeable standardized coefficient for racial resentment stands out. In short, it appears that racial attitudes, particularly racial resentment, is strongly related to estimates of police use of excessive force even when controlling for experience with the police and political identification.

Before turning to our final question, we examine this same model separately in three race-ethnic sub-samples within the 2020 TS in Table 4. The much larger sample of White respondents has smaller standard errors and thus more significant coefficients, but in general the stories are largely comparable. Among each set of respondents, those who identify more strongly as Republican were less likely to believe police excessive force was common. Among each set of respondents, a preference for individualistic rather than structural or discriminatory explanations for racial economic inequalities was associated a reduced belief that police excessive force was common.24

Do racial attitudes explain racial differences in estimates of police use of excessive force?

Finally, we turn to our last question: whether racial attitudes (or the other explanations we control for) can help us understand the substantial racial stratification in views of police use of force. Looking at the coefficients capturing the role of race in Table 2, it appears that some of these factors may have helped explain some of the gap between White and Black Americans in views of police use of force. In the 2020 TS, for example, the effect of race is nearly halved, dropping the average difference in views between Black and White Americans to only about half an answer category once these explanations are included. There are more modest drops in the gaps between Latinx and non-Latinx White respondents.  

Looking at changes in the coefficients is of course not sufficient to determine mediation, so we also directly explore whether racial attitudes explain racial differences using Imai-Keele-Tingley tests of mediation (Imai et al. 2011). We also explore the possibility of mediation for the alternative explanations we control for, police contact and political identification. Specifically, we simultaneously consider any potential mediator: any of the measures of racial attitudes or police contact or political identities that are racially stratified and are significantly associated with the outcome in the appropriate direction.25 First we consider whether racial attitudes or the other explanations explain the difference in views between White and Black respondents. Table 5 presents estimates for the average causal mediation effect (the indirect effect) as well as the proportion mediated. Negative racial affect has a modest but significant mediation effect in two of the three studies, and violent stereotypes have a similarly significant but modest effect in the one study they were included in. The most sizeable and consistently significant mediation effect is for racial resentment, explaining between 21 and 25 percent of the racial differences in views of police use of force across the three studies. Some of the measures capturing alternative explanations also show some signs of mediation. Arrests mediate some of the difference in only one of the studies, and even there it mediates only around 2 percent of the difference. Political identification appears to play a bigger role. Stronger identification as Republican mediates some of the difference in two of the three studies, and in the 2020 TS, at least, this effect is sizeable: about a fifth of the difference overall. Stronger identification as conservative significantly mediates racial differences in all three studies, explaining about 6 percent of the differences in the 2020 TS.  In short, there is strong evidence for our main question: that negative racial affect—and even more so racial resentment—play significant roles in explaining why White Americans have lower estimates of the prevalence of police excessive force than Black Americans.

Finally, we are also interested in explaining the differences between Latinx respondents and both non-Latinx Black and White respondents. As Figure 1 suggested, Latinx respondents fell somewhere between non-Latinx Black and White respondents in their perceptions of the frequency of police use of excessive force. Table 6 presents two sets of mediation analyses from the 2020 TS. The first two columns investigate whether any of the factors we consider explain why Latinx respondents have higher estimates than non-Latinx White respondents of the frequency of police use of excessive force. Latinx respondents were less likely to express negative racial affect towards Black Americans and less likely to express racial resentment, and both of these factors also appear relevant to explaining differences in perceptions of police use of force between Latinx and non-Latinx White Americans. Additionally, politics appear to play an important role. Latinx Americans are less likely than non-Latinx White Americans to identify as strongly conservative or Republican and are less likely to prefer a small government. All of these factors appear to explain differences in perceptions of police use of force between Latinx and non-Latinx White Americans. Stronger identification as Republican appears particularly important, explaining about 17 percent of the difference overall.

Columns 3 and 4 of Table 6 examine whether any of the factors explain why Latinx respondents have lower estimates than non-Latinx Black respondents of the frequency of police use of excessive force. Latinx Americans are also more likely to express anti-Black affect and racial resentment than Black Americans, and these also both appear relevant to explaining average differences in perceptions of police use of force. Racial resentment in particular appears to explain more than a third of the difference in average perceptions of police force between Latinx and non-Latinx Black respondents. Arrests mediate some of the difference, around 8 percent overall. Latinx Americans identify more strongly as conservative and Republican than non-Latinx Black Americans and are more likely to express a preference for small government than Black Americans. All of these political factors—and particularly Republican identification—appear relevant to explaining why Latinx Americans have lower estimates of the frequency of police use of excessive force. In sum, racial attitudes—and racial resentment in particular—appear important to explaining average group differences in estimates of the prevalence of police use of excessive force between Latinx Americans, non-Latinx Black Americans, and non-Latinx White Americans, even after controlling for mediation from politics and police contact.


Our analyses are cross-sectional and reflect a specific and particularly eventful historical moment, so we encourage future work on this question. However, a number of important findings emerge from this work. First, consistent with prior work, we find substantial racial differences in views of police use of force. White Americans, on average, were substantially less likely to believe that the police frequently use more force than is necessary than Black Americans, with the views of Latinx Americans falling somewhere in between. We also explore potential explanations for these views, and for the racial and ethnic differences in these views.

First, confirming our key question, racial attitudes do appear to matter. We considered three different dimensions: racial affect, violent stereotypes, and racial resentment. Those who reported feeling more coldly overall towards ‘blacks’ relative to ‘whites’—our simplest and direct measure of negative racial affect—were less likely to believe that the police frequently used more force than necessary in two of the three studies (the 2020 TS and 2019 PS), and significantly mediated racial differences in views of police use of force in those studies. Stereotypes of Black Americans as more violent than White Americans, however, was not associated with perceptions of police use of force, at least in models that included controls for these other measures of political and racial attitudes.   

The most consistent and sizeable predictor of perceptions of police use of force is racial resentment. Those respondents who minimize historical and contemporary discrimination and resent perceived efforts to upset the racial status quo were substantially less likely to believe the police commonly used more force than necessary (Kinder and Sanders 1996). This racial resentment, consistently higher among White respondents, appeared to explain a substantial portion of the racial differences in estimates of police use of force. Racial resentment explains between a fifth and a quarter of the difference between the average views of Black and White respondents across the study.  Racial resentment also helps explain why Latinx respondents fall above non-Latinx White Respondents but below non-Latinx Black respondents in their views of the prevalence of police use of excessive force.

Among the other potential explanations, arrests are a moment at which police officers may use force, and thus an opportunity for people to gain direct information about this issue. We find that those who have ever experienced an arrest had significantly higher estimates of the frequency of police uses of excessive force. However, arrests did not play a big role in explaining racial differences in views of the police use of force.26 Less serious police contact—the experience of being stopped and questioned, either experienced personally or vicariously through family and friends—did not appear relevant. 

Additionally, in an era in which police use of force is a visible and partisan public issue, political identification clearly matters to public opinion on this issue. In the main study, those who identify more strongly as Republican than Democrat had substantially lower estimates of the frequency of police use of excessive force.  There are sizeable racial differences in political affiliation, and these differences explained a significant portion of the differences in views of police use of force by race overall. These effects were smaller or not significant in the replication studies. Those who identified more strongly as ideologically conservative were also less likely to believe the police frequently used more force than necessary.  Across the three studies this consistently explained some of the racial gap in views of police use of force, though a smaller proportion than the effect of Republican identification in the main study.  Politics also appeared relevant to explaining why Latinx Americans, on average, reported higher estimates of the frequency of police use of excessive force than non-Latinx White Americans but lower estimates than non-Latinx Black Americans.

Notably, although these factors—and racial resentment in particular—appear to explain a sizeable proportion of the differences between Black and White respondents, they do not explain all of the difference. Black Americans still report significantly higher estimates of the frequency of police use of excessive force even after political and racial attitudes are accounted for. Our analysis does not provide a clear answer on the meaning of these remaining differences, though we have several suggestions for future research. One is that in addition to differences in the quantity of experiences with the police, differences in the quality of experiences are also likely to matter.  Additionally, other dimensions of contemporary racial attitudes—such as sympathy or White identification (Chudy 2021; Hannan et al. 2021; Jardina 2019) or the ignorance that protects White privilege (Drakulich and Rodriguez‐Whitney 2018; Mills 2007, 2011)—may also be relevant to views of police use of force. 

In short, we do not find that race and racism are merely relevant to these views, we find that they are critical to understanding people’s views of police use of force. This remains true even after widespread participation—including White Americans—in Black Lives Matter protests in the spring and summer of 2020.


Police use of force is a critical social and political issue. Lives are at stake. The mental and physical health of victims of excessive force are at stake. So too is the legitimacy of our government. When the police use more force than necessary, it violates assumptions about the social contract and threatens the notion that the police and the broader government serve the will—and have the consent—of the people. When the police use this force disproportionately against members of some marginalized racial and ethnic groups, it illuminates processes of group conflict below a veneer of popular consensus. The reliance on the use of state violence, through the police, for the purposes of controlling and coercing groups of people who are alienated from civil society and disenfranchised from political institutions indicates a profound crisis of internal legitimacy. In short, it is not surprising that police use of force is at the symbolic heart of perhaps the largest social movement in U.S. history (Buchanan et al. 2020).

Perceptions of police use of force matter as well. Addressing the myriad problems with our criminal justice system will be difficult or impossible if there is no agreement that the problems exist. Since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014, organizers, activists, and other political actors have drawn attention to the issue of police use of force as part of the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement (Boyles 2019; Cobbina 2019; Taylor 2016). Counter-framing efforts have challenged this narrative, portraying excessive force as rare and the product of ‘bad apples,’ suggesting larger reforms are unnecessary. Reflecting this, there is a broad divide in public views on the issue. White Americans are disproportionately less likely to believe that the police frequently use more force than necessary than Black Americans, with Latinx Americans falling somewhere in between. Along with experiences with the police and political identification, we find a critical role for racial views in explaining views of police excessive force. Racial affect matters, but it is a more instrumental concern with the relative position of Black and White Americans—and a racial resentment of efforts to address inequalities—that plays the largest and most consistent role. It even plays an important role among Black and especially Latinx Americans, despite lower overall levels of racial resentment among these groups.

It matters that there are substantial racial differences in views of the prevalence of police use of force. It also matters why these differences exist.  What we ask here is whether race matters—at least in part—because of racism. And we find that it does. 

Social science research—the questions we ask and answers we identify on crime and justice issues—also matter. Scholarship on crime and justice has long been used to support or justify racially biased and harmful policies and practices, for instance segregationist policing (Westley 1953) and harsh punitive juvenile policies (Miller, Potter, and Kappeler 2006). Social science scholarship has also often played an important role in shaping the narrative and public understandings of crime and justice, including the core myth of black criminality (Muhammad 2010). 

For this reason, it is critical that scholarly work on crime and the justice system center the role that the historical and contemporary mechanisms of systemic racism play in these processes. Similarly, discussions of solutions must acknowledge and address the role that public racial attitudes play in justifying and supporting existing practices. In short, we need to center racism in thinking about crime and justice problems—and solutions to these problems—because, as we found here, some Americans already use this lens. 

Our most basic implication for future work on public opinion and crime and justice issues is that the work must center race and do so by centering racism.  The results of this study—which focuses on one specific dimension of views of crime and justice issues with particular contemporary relevance—suggest a direction for this work. First, work must go beyond noting racial differences to exploring a role for racism.  Second, work that does examine racism must move beyond noting its overall effect to specifying where and among whom it has the greatest effect.  And third, work should look to explicitly attempt to explain—through an examination of mediation—differences between racial groups, and in particularly why White Americans hold such different views of crime and justice issues.  We also recommend going beyond what we have done here to integrate more dimensions of racial attitudes into a cohesive theoretical model and to better explore differences in views who fall between White and Black Americans in America’s racial hierarchy.

As we argue in the front end, it is important to identify elements of systemic and institutional racism, but it is also critical to identify the racial attitudes that help justify, defend, and preserve these systems. In his landmark investigation of the issues facing Black Americans in Philadelphia at the turn of the century, Du Bois (1899) identifies a variety of factors we would now describe as elements of systemic or institutional racism. But he also places direct blame on the racial attitudes of White Americans, and the way those attitudes warp their understanding of the true problems facing Black Americans. In this way our call to center racism is far from new but remains frustratingly urgent. This approach is critical to identifying the specific barriers to enacting solutions to crime and justice problems, and particularly to addressing the pervasive racial inequalities in our justice system.

In the spirit of centering racism, we conclude by plainly stating the implications of our findings. Many Americans—disproportionately Black Americans—have been sounding an alarm about problematic practices by public employees who wield considerable power over citizens (Black Lives Matter n.d.; Cobbina 2019). As we found, many Americans—disproportionately White Americans—minimize the problem. White Americans are also disproportionately likely to possess a particular racial logic: one which dismisses the legitimacy of historical and contemporary discrimination, focuses on imagined Black failings as the root causes of inequalities, and resents any attempt to upset the racial order. This logic, along with an outright dislike of Black Americans, explains a significant portion of the average differences in views of police use of force between Black and White Americans. To disbelieve these voices, to minimize the prevalence of excessive force—when it does happen and disproportionately to Black Americans—is to minimize the value of Black lives. The fact that this minimization is rooted in an anti-black racial logic suggests that minimizing the value of Black lives may be the point. 


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[1] In particular, surveys show White Americans tend to minimize racial discrimination and other problems in the criminal justice system, especially relative to the views of Black Americans (Anderson 2014; Gilberstadt 2020; Menasce Horowitz, Brown, and Cox 2019; Morin and Stepler 2016).  There are parallels in other racialized social problems: White Americans, on average, believe that anti-black discrimination is less prevalent than anti-White discrimination (Norton and Sommers 2011).  This minimization of racism is a key frame of a modern racist ideology (Bonilla-Silva 2018). For our purposes, we are focused on the effect or impact rather than the intent of minimizing problems with racial dimensions, though Mills’s (2011) epistemology of ignorance may be relevant to the latter.

[2] Our study builds on the important exceptions to this general trend, which we discuss below. Additionally, some research identifies an indirect relevance of systemic racism: that perceptions of the police are in part informed by the kinds of negative encounters with the police disproportionately experienced by Black Americans (e.g. Brunson 2007; Crutchfield et al. 2012). This is clearly relevant, but as a total explanation of public opinion it underestimates people’s capacity to look beyond their experiences: many Black and White Americans hold critical views of the police based on the experiences of others, whether acquaintances or through news reports (Gau and Brunson 2010; Warren 2011; Weitzer and Tuch 2005).

[3] A note on language: acknowledging that few people self-identify as Latinx, we use the term as an admittedly imperfect category to describe people who self-identify as Hispanic or Latinx/a/o, given that many non-Spanish speakers do not identify as Hispanic and in sensitivity to those whose gender identity does not align with Latina or Latino. We capitalize Black and White in recognition that both reflect socially constructed categories rather than objective descriptors, and in places use Black and White to refer specifically to non-Latinx Black and White Americans.

[4] White Americans disproportionately—though not exclusively—hold negative racial views of Black Americans, including racially resentful views (Kam and Burge 2018, 2019).

[5] This may underestimate the true level, as some who have had force used on them by the police may not feel comfortable answering questions about it even in an anonymous government survey. 

[6] Although we focus in this paper on Black Americans, biases in police use of force are not limited to this group (e.g. Prenzler, Porter, and Alpert 2013).  By lifetime risk of being killed by a police officer, Black men and women, Latinx men, and American Indian/Alaska Native men and women have a higher risk relative to non-Hispanic or Indigenous White Americans (Edwards, Lee, and Esposito 2019).

[7] See Hunt (2021) for an example of a burgeoning philosophical discourse on police violence that springs at least in part from this insight.

[8] We also encourage work into other potentially relevant dimensions of racial attitudes, including racial sympathy (Chudy 2021; Hannan et al. 2021), White guilt (Chudy, Piston, and Shipper 2019), White nationalism (Graham et al. 2021), and White identity (Jardina 2019, 2020; Kaufmann 2019).

[9] Research providing precise recent estimates of the population-level prevalence of racial crime stereotypes are rare. Older surveys suggest half or more of White Americans view Black Americans as aggressive or violent (Hurwitz and Peffley 1998; Sniderman and Piazza 2009). Indirect evidence of these stereotypes can be found in research revealing an overestimation of crime in neighborhoods with more Black residents (Drakulich 2012; Quillian and Pager 2001).  A series of experiments have shown that priming people to think about race makes them think about crime and vice-versa (Eberhardt 2019). Although it is not a representative sample, more than 70 percent of those who complete the implicit association test for race and weapons have greater difficulty pairing White than Black with weapons (Banaji and Greenwald 2013).

[10] Research on racial attitudes has disproportionately focused on attitudes held by White people, finding substantial variation in these views among White Americans, ranging from strong in-group identification to shame or anger at White people as a group (e.g. Chudy et al. 2019; Jardina 2019). Although they have received less attention, there is of course also substantial heterogeneity in the racial attitudes of other people, including Black and Latinx Americans (e.g. Bonilla-Silva 2018). Thus, although racial resentment was developed to understand racial attitudes among White people (Kinder and Sanders 1996; Sears and McConahay 1973), some Black people are in reality racially resentful of Black Americans as a group: they blame crime or poverty among Black Americans on individual or cultural failings and minimize the historical or contemporary relevance of discrimination and resent it when they believe other Black Americans are asking for special treatment. There are multiple overlapping explanations for these views. One comes from work on social boundaries (e.g. Lamont and Molnár 2002) and suggests that one individual approach to a boundary that you are on the non-privileged side of is to reinforce and agree with the boundary, while setting yourself personally apart from the stigmatized class—correspondingly, racial resentment is associated with a lack of a sense of a shared fate among Black Americans (Kam and Burge 2019; Tesler and Sears 2010). Bonilla-Silva (2018) presents an alternative formulation based on Black Americans being affected in direct and indirect ways by this dominant framing. Kam and Burge (2019) also highlight status theory and elite discourse as ways of understanding racially resentful Black Americans. But what is most notable for our purposes is not that these views are held by some Black Americans, but how much more common they are among White Americans (Bonilla-Silva 2018 comes to a similar conclusion). Latinx Americans—generally between White and Black Americans in the country’s racial order (Bonilla-Silva 2018; Peterson and Krivo 2010)—also sometimes express a resentment of Black Americans, though are also generally less likely to do so than non-Hispanic White Americans (Bonilla-Silva 2018; Segura and Valenzuela 2010; Tesler and Sears 2010). Like non-Hispanic Black and White Americans, there is substantial variation among Latinx Americans in these views (e.g. Corral 2020; Menjívar and Bejarano 2004). Although this paper focuses on explaining average differences between people of different racial and ethnic identities, we strongly encourage more work considering variation among people with similar racial identities.

[11] On the role of experiences with the police, Buckler and Unnever (2008) look at a measure of the prevalence of police brutality specifically against ‘minorities,’ and Wozniak et al. (2020) include a measure of prevalence only as part of a larger scale.  On the role of political identities, in addition to more work on support for police use of force, Callanan and Rosenberger (2011) use a measure of perceived local prevalence of the problem, which misses that people can recognize the problem generally while acknowledging that it isn’t a problem in their community. 

[12] Barkan and Cohn (1998) do examine anti-Black antipathy and a general (not violence-specific) measure of stereotypes. 

[13] Most studies use data collected before 2013.  Wozniak et al. (2020) use a non-probability sample collected in the spring of 2016, and several studies use a large range of years of data from the GSS looking at support for police use of force that has some overlap with the Black Lives Matter era, including Silver and Pickett (2015) (1972-2014), Simon et al. (2021) (1994-2016), Dennison (2018) (2012 and 2016), and Mourtgos and Adams (2020) (2012 to 2018).

[14] All analyses include post-stratification weights.  More information can be found at

[15] Additional information can be found at

[16] “Most of the time” is the answer that fits best with estimates based on NCVS surveys (Eith and Durose 2011; Hyland, Langton, and Davis 2015), but “about half of the time” is also defensible (Harrell and Davis 2020). “Always” may also be defensible under the philosophical view that police use of force is rarely or never justified given that the use of force is generally not reported by officers or police agencies (Knox, Lowe, and Mummolo 2019; Phillips 2010), the use of excessive force is largely unpunished (Gonzalez Van Cleve 2017; Jackman and Barrett 2020; Schwartz 2014), its use falls disproportionately on marginalized groups (DeVylder, Oh, et al. 2017; Harrell and Davis 2020; Ross, Winterhalder, and McElreath 2021), most recipients of force perceive it as unnecessary (Hyland et al. 2015), it results in large numbers of deaths of citizens (Picheta and Pettersson 2020), and perceptions of the police use of unnecessary force undermine the legitimacy of the police (Terrill, Paoline, and Gau 2016).

[17] Respondents are asked how strongly they agree or disagree on a 5-item scale with four statements.  1) “Irish, Italian, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.” 2) “Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class” (reverse coded). 3) “Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve” (reverse coded). 4) “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.”

[18] Prior work suggests these views are primarily driven by social concerns about relative racial group positions (Simmons and Bobo 2018), are connected to both explicit and implicit indicators of racial affect (Drakulich 2015a; Sears et al. 1997), and are independent from a more general political conservatism or non-racial individualism (DeSante 2013; Enders 2019; Kinder and Mendelberg 2000; Tarman and Sears 2005; Wallsten et al. 2017)—though we also include a separate measure of conservative ideology to distinguish these views. Kam and Burge (2018, 2019) show that the scale usefully distinguishes preferences for structural versus individual attributions about racial inequalities among both White and Black Americans, and note similarities in the relationship between resentment and other racial attitudes or views of policy among White and Black Americans.  Black Americans do differ, however, in they are much less likely to be racially resentful (Bonilla-Silva 2018; Kam and Burge 2018, 2019).

[19] Prior work has established that there is a heterogeneity of views about racial resentment among Black Americans, that Black and White Americans explain their answers to the questions in similar ways, and that they are appropriate to use to understand differences in views among both White and Black Americans (Kam and Burge 2018, 2019).

[20] In exploring the connection between race and views of police use of force, we assume race is socially constructed and includes a ‘bundle’ of differing characteristics (Sen and Wasow 2016).

[21] Given the large number of missing cases in income in all studies, and the change in significance across studies, we recommend caution in directly interpreting the role of income in influencing estimates of the prevalence of police use of unnecessary force. 

[22] Diagnostics suggested a constant error variance, a linear functional form, and independent and normally distributed errors.

[23] Multicollinearity does not appear to be an issue: no effect had a variance inflation factor of 2.5 or greater. 

[24] We also explored interactions between race-ethnicity and resentment, finding no differences in the effect of resentment on perceptions of police use of force between Black and White respondents, but that resentment had a significantly larger effect among Latinx respondents (despite lower overall levels of racial resentment than non-Hispanic White respondents).

[25] There were no significant differences between Black and White respondents in reporting recently being stopped in the 2020 TS or in ever being arrested in the 2019 PS or 2020 ET. 

[26] Our measure likely underestimates the role of experiences with the police relative to those that better capture the frequency and quality of these experiences.  However, a significant majority of people of all races and ethnicities never experience an arrest (4 of 5 overall in our study, and 3 in 4 Black respondents), placing a natural cap on its explanatory capacity. 


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