Yahoo News/YouGov poll: Most Americans say race was a 'major factor' in George Floyd's death, but opinions on protests are split

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent

Americans are largely united in seeing racism at play in the killing of George Floyd and in policing more generally — but they are divided over the violent protests that have gripped Minneapolis and other major U.S. cities in the wake of Floyd’s death, according to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll

The survey, which was conducted May 29 and May 30, found that a clear majority of U.S. adults (61 percent) believe race was a “major factor” in the May 25 death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in the custody of Minneapolis police who lost his life after officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on the back of Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while Floyd complained that he could not breathe. Only 9 percent said race was “not a factor.” 

Likewise, 72 percent of Americans said they “strongly approve” of the firing of Chauvin and the three other Minneapolis police officers involved in Floyd’s death; an additional 12 percent “somewhat approve.” 

More than three-quarters (77 percent) said Chauvin was “obviously guilty and, if anything, the authorities were too slow to arrest him”; only 23 percent think “there has been a rush to judgment” and want “a more thorough investigation.” 

And nearly all Americans believe the charge against Chauvin — third-degree murder — is either “appropriate” (42 percent) or that he should have been charged with “a more serious crime” (47 percent). A small percentage of Americans said Chauvin should have been charged with a less serious crime (7 percent) or not charged at all (4 percent).  

These views reflect the fact that most Americans now acknowledge racial bias in the criminal-justice system — and throughout U.S. society more broadly. Sizable majorities said that race relations in the U.S. are “generally bad” (57 percent); that they have either stayed “about the same” (40 percent) or “gotten worse” (45 percent) over the last decade; that the criminal justice system treats whites better than blacks (62 percent); that police do not treat whites and blacks equally (67 percent — a number that has increased 15 percentage points since 2009); that cops are not “usually held accountable” for their misconduct (56 percent); and the deaths of African-Americans during encounters with police are “signs of a broader problem” (61 percent) rather than “isolated incidents” (39 percent). 

At the same time, a slim majority of Americans describe the unrest that has erupted in Minneapolis as “mostly violent riots” (51 percent) as opposed to “mostly peaceful protests” (10 percent). A quarter (25 percent) see the demonstrations as a mixture of both, “about equally.” 

Asked to characterize the motives of the demonstrators, Americans were torn, with 43 percent attributing the unrest to “a genuine desire to hold police officers accountable” and 40 percent chalking it up to “a long-standing bias against the police.” 

Protesters demonstrate in Las Vegas over the death of George Floyd. (John Locher/AP)

And so while a rare overall consensus seems to have formed around Floyd’s death — a development that may have something to do with the fact that a full 70 percent of Americans have watched harrowing video footage of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck — the Yahoo News/YouGov poll also shows how complicated views about race in the U.S. remain, with divisions surfacing along both racial and political lines. 

Twenty-two percent of Republicans, for instance, said that race was “not a factor” in George Floyd’s death, while just 1 percent of Democrats and 6 percent of independents agree.

The number of black Americans who said Chauvin should have been charged with a more serious crime (78 percent) is nearly twice as high as the number of white Americans who said the same (41 percent). 

Forty percent of Republicans think there has been a rush to judgment against Chauvin, versus just 10 percent of Democrats. 

Wide majorities of Republicans (73 percent) and whites (57 percent) see the unrest in Minneapolis as “mostly violent riots.” But only a third of Democrats (33 percent) and black Americans (32 percent) describe the events that way. 

Asked whether demonstrators have been motivated by a genuine desire to hold police accountable or a long-standing bias against police, the number of Democrats who said the former (64 percent) mirrored the number of Republicans who said the latter (65 percent). Blacks (71 percent) sided with Democrats. (There is, of course, significant overlap between the two demographics, with most African-Americans identifying as Democrats.) 

Republicans are split over whether U.S. race relations are generally good (43 percent) or generally bad (46 percent). Democrats (70 percent bad versus 18 percent good) and African-Americans (75 percent bad versus 15 percent good) are not.

 A majority of Republicans (51 percent) said the criminal-justice system treats whites and blacks equally. Eighty-six percent of Democrats said the system treats whites better.

A plurality of Republicans (40 percent) said police officers are usually held accountable for misconduct. About twice as many Democrats (75 percent) said they are not.

And perhaps most striking, the vast majority of Republicans (68 percent) said the deaths of African-Americans during recent police encounters are isolated incidents. Eighty-four percent of Democrats disagree, insisting they are signs of a broader problem. This may explain why there is more widespread consensus around Floyd’s death than around race and policing in general. 

The poll suggests that such divisions likely stem from both personal experience and preexisting views of police. Black Americans (32 percent) are three times as likely as white Americans (11 percent) to say they have no trust in cops. Blacks are also three times as likely as whites to say they feel “less secure” when they see a police officer (60 percent versus 22 percent), while whites are six times as likely as blacks to say they feel “more secure” (32 percent versus 5 percent). 

By the same token, far more blacks (43 percent) than whites (28 percent) said they have been personally treated unfairly by a police officer and that either most (19 percent among blacks; 4 percent among whites) or some (40 percent among blacks; 19 percent among whites) of the officers in their community are prejudiced against African-Americans.  

Jessica Knutson and her daughter Abigail, 3, place flowers at a memorial to George Floyd in Minneapolis. (John Minchillo/AP)

Going forward, Americans largely favor a set of reforms to reduce deadly-force encounters with police. Sixty-seven percent support banning neck restraints; 80 percent support an early-warning system to identify problematic officers; 87 percent support outfitting all cops with body cameras; and 88 percent training officers to de-escalate conflicts and avoid using force.

But the public largely opposes one policy proposal that has become a rallying cry among protestors in the wake of George Floyd’s death defunding police departments, which proponents say would free up money for less violent alternative emergency response programs that involve health care workers, social workers, conflict interrupters, restorative justice teams and community organizers. 

Asked whether they would back cuts in funding for police departments, 65 percent of Americans said no. Just 16 percent said yes — a number that held steady across party lines, with Democrats at 16 percent, Republicans at 15 percent and independents at 17 percent. 

The only group to show any substantial support for defunding police departments is African-Americans, who are nearly three times as likely as whites — 33 percent versus 12 percent — to say they favor the measure.

Cover thumbnail photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters

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The Yahoo News survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,060 U.S. adult residents interviewed online May 29-30, 2020. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race and education, as well as 2016 presidential vote, registration status and news interest. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S residents. The margin of error is approximately 4.3 percent.