Do young white Democrats really feel as threatened by the police as young black people do?

Tufts Public Opinion Lab
5 min readNov 7, 2023

by Thomas Hershewe (class of 2024)

Consistently, research finds racial disparities in police actions and outcomes. Black people are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, injured, and subjected to fatal police shootings than white people. Research also reveals that adult African Americans between the ages of 20 and 35 years old are most likely to be victims of police violence, and that young, adult African Americans are three times more likely than young white adults to be a victim of police violence. These statistics are frequently cited and gained particular attention since the killing of George Floyd in 2020 and the subsequent BLM protests. While 45 percent of young Black adults report that the police make them feel unsafe, young white Democratic adults are just as likely to report that the police make them feel unsafe. Given that it is empirically clear that young Black adults are at much more risk of police violence than young White adults, why do young white Democrats report that they feel just as unsafe?

Using data from the 2022 Cooperate Election Study (CES), I examined respondents’ evaluations of how safe the police made them feel by race, age, and partisanship. The survey asked 60,000 respondents, “Do the police make you feel mostly safe, somewhat safe, somewhat unsafe, or mostly unsafe?” I collapsed this scale to only examine whether a respondent reported if the police made them feel safe or unsafe.

Expectedly, there is a significant racial difference in responses for how safe the police make them feel–notably, a 20 point gap between the percent of white and Black Americans who say that the police makes them feel unsafe. Only 18 percent of white adults say the police make them feel unsafe in contrast to 38 percent of Black adults.

To see if age also impacted differences in perceptions of the police, I divided respondents into age groups. Here, the police make younger Americans feel less safe compared to older Americans–a relationship that is especially pronounced for non-Black respondents. Just 5 percent of white adults aged 65+ report that the police make them feel unsafe, compared to one in three white adults aged 18–29 reporting the same feeling of uneasiness. In contrast, 26 percent of 65+ Black adults say the police make them feel unsafe trending upward to 46 percent for Black people aged 18–29.

While the trends by age group stand out, it is perhaps explained by older Americans becoming more likely to settle down, to own a home, and to become a part of a community. Rather than capturing a trend that the police make older Americans feel safer, it could rather be that as Americans get older they become more comfortable in their living situation which translates to feeling safer. For instance, someone living in a home for many years may be more likely to know an officer who lives nearby or know the officer who walks their beat in that neighborhood. Alternatively, younger adults might interact less with the police and feel less safe as a result.

While there are significant differences between age and racial groups’ feelings toward the police, some of this gap disappears when controlling for partisanship. In fact, among the 18–29 age group, white Democrats are just as likely as Black Democrats to say the police make them feel unsafe (47 and 45 percent, respectively)–with young Democrats of other races not much lower. About 40 percent of young Black Republicans also reported that the police make them feel unsafe; an overwhelming majority of all other Republicans said the police made them feel safe.

We might think that social media and social movements explain young Democrat’s heightened perceptions that the police make them feel unsafe. Perhaps, young Democrats who pay attention to politics or post about politics on their social media accounts might be more informed about police injustice and genuinely feel less safe. Yet, I find the same patterns even after I control for for news consumption and posting about politics on social media.

Instead, I propose that this is an effect of expressive responding or response substitution for young Democrats following the death of George Floyd and a growing social movement demanding police reform. Rather than expressing their genuine level of (un)safety, these young, particularly white, Democrats are using the question to express their dislike of the police, their support for police reform, or possibly even ally-ship with their Black counterparts. For example, even if a young Democrat does not themselves feel threatened by the police in their everyday lives, they may choose to report that they do in a survey to make a broader point about the fact that police do pose a threat to people in other marginalized demographics.

For instance, looking over time, young Democrats in 2016 looked dramatically different from today. In 2016, one in four young, white Democrats reported that the police make them feel unsafe–compared to almost half by 2022. In 2020, after the death of George Floyd and widespread BLM protests, Democrats were much more willing to report that the police made them feel unsafe. In 2022, a greater proportion of young white Democrats reported that the police make them feel unsafe compared to their Black counterparts of the same age.

Again, given racial disparities in police outcomes, we expect significant racial differences for how the police make someone feel. But, we should not expect partisanship to affect how the police make them feel, unless individuals are using their partisan identity to respond to questions about police safety. So, we should be skeptical that the police make young white Democrats feel more unsafe than Black respondents of all ages. Rather I propose that young Democrats, perhaps because they have less experience with law enforcement, might be using their party identity and the Democratic platform of police reform as a heuristic to report how the police make them feel–expressing dislike of the police by claiming the police do not make them feel safe, even if that isn’t quite true. While it is important to examine questions on policing and racial injustice, it is also important to question if certain individuals might have alternative motivations when answering these questions. When researchers inquire about policing, someone’s answers may be reflecting their sentiment regarding the importance of police reform, rather than their genuine feelings about how the safe police make them feel.

--

--

Tufts Public Opinion Lab

The Tufts Public Opinion Lab (TPOL) is dedicated to studying contemporary controversies in American public opinion using quantitative data analysis.