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Metro Detroit racial divide is widest over police

Demostrators in downtown Detroit protest police-involved shootings that have killed African-Americans.
Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio
Demostrators in downtown Detroit protest police-involved shootings that have killed African-Americans.

While black and white metro Detroiters are finding common ground on racial progress, there remains a gulf, shaped by vastly different experiences, in how the two groups view police.

And nowhere are those differences laid more bare than in the divergent views on the protest movement known as Black Lives Matter.

Roughly eight-in-10 African-American residents in metro Detroit express support for Black Lives Matter, according to to a survey on racial attitudes conducted this month for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative. BLM arose three years ago in reaction to the killing of unarmed blacks by police. Black support for the group (79% strongly or somewhat support BLM) is more than double that among white metro-Detroiters, 34%.
How to explain the difference?

Both blacks and whites have been witness to heavy media coverage, including video, in recent years of police killings of African-Americans, as well as the apparently retaliatory killings of police officers. But as DJC polling reveals, blacks in and around Detroit report far more personal experience being unfairly treated by police than whites.

One Detroiter surveyed, a 52-year-old African-American from the city’s east side who asked to be identified by his first name only, LaMar, told the DJC that police regularly hassle him when he ventures to the suburbs to shop at stores not available in Detroit.

“I don’t experience the harassment within the city limits nearly as much,” he said. “In fact, it’s rare. In the suburban areas, where unfortunately I’m forced to shop, I am accosted by police, and I fear for my life.”

The survey shows that nearly one-in-three African Americans (31%) in the metro area reported being unfairly stopped by police in the past 12 months, they said because of their skin color. By contrast, five percent of whites reported an unfair, race-or-ethnicity-based interaction with law enforcement.

The poll, of 600 Macomb, Oakland and Wayne County residents, was conducted by Lansing-based EPIC-MRA between July 14-19 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4%. The poll’s prime sponsor is the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which is also a major funder of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.

The split along racial lines echoes polling nationally, sentiments apparently fueled by vastly divergent experiences interacting with police in white and African-American communities. The differences stand in contrast with the general consensus among black and white metro Detroiters that there has been progress in race relations in the region, and that it will continue into the future.

Only seven percent of African Americans in metro Detroit said they oppose Black Lives Matter, a movement that has also become a contested rallying cry, which whites often replace with “All Lives Matter” or, when it come to memorializing police officers, “Blue Lives Matter.” Many whites (and some blacks) have taken issue, too, with what they believe are overly militant tactics by BLM protesters.

Forty-four percent of whites and 30% of Arab-Americans and Hispanics voiced opposition to the BLM movement in the local survey.

“There’s a huge pushback in this country on Black Lives Matter,” said Shirley Stancato, president and CEO of New Detroit Inc., the racial justice coalition, who is African-American.

“It’s unfortunate that in the county, if you say something like, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ then people think that you think that no other lives matter. Black Lives Matter was created to say that of all the things happening to African Americans in the country, our lives matter, also. It doesn’t mean that our lives matter separately.”

While the DJC poll was taken during a violent summer nationally and a contentious presidential campaign, southeast Michigan has been mostly spared videotaped accounts of police shootings that have roiled the country. Though Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy is now considering whether she will charge two police officers from mainly white Dearborn in connection with the separate shooting deaths last winter of two unarmed African-Americans from Detroit.

As the DJC has reported, many suburban Detroit police departments have failed to keep pace with the racial transformation of the communities they protect.

In Detroit, abuse of the black community by the overwhelmingly white police was considered one of the chief reasons behind the violence in Detroit and many other U.S. cities in 1967.

In 1968, a report by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as theKerner Commission, created by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson to study the causes of urban unrest, said: “(T)o many Negroes police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression.”

With the 1973 election of Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, the Detroit Police Department personnel and management slowly began to reflect the city’s racial makeup. Mistreatment of citizens did not end, however.

It was not until earlier this year that Detroit Police emerged from 13 years of oversight by the U.S. Justice Department over the shootings of suspects, unconstitutional investigative techniques and mistreatment of prisoners – some of the same issues that propel Black Lives Matter today.

The current Detroit chief, James Craig, has made further changesto try to better ensure police respect the rights of residents. Craig, who is African American, has enjoyed sky-high popularity among residents, previous polls have shown.

Still, as the DJC survey shows, police-community relations remain a sticking point for many African-Americans in the region.

Asked if they thought police in their communities treats blacks better, worse or about the same as they treat white people, three-quarters of whites, but only half of African Americans, responded “about the same.”

Nearly four-in-10 African Americans said “worse.” There was little difference in responses between African-Americans living in Detroit or the suburbs.

African-Americans’ feelings of being treated unfairly also extend to other parts of the criminal justice system in metro Detroit. Fifty percent of blacks surveyed in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties say the court system treats blacks worse than whites.

Listen to Stateside's interview with reporter Bill McGraw above.

Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism's Michigan Reporting Initiative, the Ford Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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