Eighteen-year-old Michael Brown’s murder by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri has focused the nation’s attention on racial disparities in the law enforcement system. Brown’s case is not an isolated incident. Along with Brown, the cases of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis in Florida and, more recently, Eric Garner in New York and Ezell Ford in Los Angeles, all tell stories of how unarmed Black men became victims of police forces charged with serving and protecting their communities and are then denied justice by the legal system.

Since Michael Brown’s death, the media have focused on racial tensions among residents of Ferguson. It is important, however, to note that the tension between police forces and Black communities is nothing new, nor is it confined to Ferguson, Missouri. Instead, 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.

In this report, we use data from several national public opinion surveys to show that Black communities—especially Black youth under 30 years of age—across the country hold considerably more negative views toward the legal system and the police compared with other groups and they have done so for many years. This is not a new phenomenon.

Our main findings are as follows:

  • Black youth report the highest rate of harassment by the police (54.4%), 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.
  • Fewer Black youth believe the legal system treats all youth equally (26.8 percent) than young people in other racial and ethnic groups.
  • Fewer Black youth feel that they are full and equal citizens under the law (60.2 percent) compared with white (70.9 percent) and Latino (64.1 percent) youth.