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Zimmerman verdict reactions show stark differences between races

Whites are far more likely than blacks to say the jury came to the right decision in the George Zimmerman trial, new polls show — another sign of the divisions laid bare by the case that has sparked protests across the country.

In a newly released poll, the Pew Research Center found that nearly half of white Americans said they were satisfied that Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of Trayvon Martin, while only 5% of blacks said the same. Eighty-six percent of black Americans surveyed were dissatisfied, compared to 30% of whites, Pew found in its survey of more than 1,400 adults.

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When it comes to Americans reacting to an event, “this is a very wide gap. It’s hard to get much wider,” said Michael Dimock, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Throughout the case, “this resonated with African Americans differently than among whites.”

The numbers were nearly mirrored in a Gallup poll of more than 2,500 adults released Monday. It found that 54% of whites surveyed said the Zimmerman verdict was right, compared to only 7% of blacks. Both surveys found that whites were more likely than blacks to say they had no opinion on the controversial case.

Pew found Americans are also split politically on the verdict, with Democrats much less content than Republicans. Tea Party conservatives are especially positive about the verdict, the survey showed: Eighty percent said they were satisfied with the decision, compared to 61% of all Republicans and 22% of Democrats.

In addition, the survey showed that younger Americans are less likely to be satisfied than older people, and women are somewhat less satisfied than men.

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Americans are also starkly split on what the trial means about race in the United States, Pew found. Black people were far more likely than whites — 78% compared to 28% — to say the Zimmerman case raised important issues about race. Sixty percent of whites said race was getting more attention than it deserved in the Zimmerman case, a sentiment shared by only 13% of black Americans surveyed.

Hispanics fell between blacks and whites on both questions.

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What creates the divergent views on the Zimmerman case “is people’s experience with injustices at the hands of law enforcement and with the criminal justice system,” said Saul Sarabia, an independent consultant and former director of the Critical Race Studies Program at the UCLA School of Law.

Gallup found that more than two thirds of black people believe the American justice system is skewed against blacks — a number that has hardly budged since the question was asked in 1993 and 2008. Only a quarter of white Americans believe the same, and the number has dropped in the past two decades.

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“If people haven’t had the same experiences, we’re going to think differently,” said Charmaine Jefferson, executive director of the California African American Museum. “I’ve been called names. I have been followed. … If you’re white and you’re not experiencing that, you think these things” — like the killing of Trayvon Martin — “are just one-offs.”

The divide over the case led President Barack Obama to speak out late last week, explaining why many in the African American community saw the verdict in light of a long history of discrimination. He asked whether Martin, if armed, would have been justified in shooting Zimmerman if he felt threatened.

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The polarized polls underscore that black and white Americans tend to fill in the gaps differently in the story of what happened when Martin was killed, said Kimberle W. Crenshaw, a UCLA law professor. For many people, “it’s easier to see George Zimmerman as the victim than it would be if Trayvon Martin were standing there in his hoodie, holding a gun,” she said.

emily.alpert@latimes.com


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