Pew study finds many Black Americans suspicious of government

A new report reveals the majority of Black Americans polled by the Pew Research Center believe “racial conspiracy theories,” saying legal, political, and economic systems in the U.S. are designed to hold Black people back. Dr. Kiana Cox, the author of the study, explains the results in an interview with theGrio.

If you’re Black in America, you’ve likely heard one of the following sayings: the “justice” system is out to lock up Black people, the government can’t be trusted, and some doctors would rather experiment on us than heal us.

A new study from the Pew Research Center finds that the majority of Black Americans believe that most U.S. institutions are actively designed to hold them back (73%).

The comprehensive national survey, which was inspired by real-life focus groups with Black Americans, asked Black participants a range of questions about their suspicions, or what is formally known in the report as “racial conspiracy theories.”

“We wanted to figure out to what extent Black people think that institutions were not only correlated with disparities but do they think that institutions are intentionally acting against them?” said Dr. Kiana Cox, a Senior Researcher at the Pew Research Center and author of the study, in an interview with TheGrio.

“There are suspicions that Black adults might have, based on particular historical touchstones like the Tuskegee study, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and then more recent examples with Marion Barry … So racial conspiracy theory speaks to the stories that Black people tell that are rooted in history,” said Cox.

She notes the most striking survey result is that Black people who experienced discrimination were more likely to distrust U.S. institutions, with 76% saying the discrimination made them angry or caused anxiety (59%). This lived experience shaped their distrust of various systems, including the media, health care, and the economy. Approximately 7 in 10 Black Americans were suspicious of the criminal justice system.

A demonstrator attends a rally in Washington Square Park to protest the death of Tyre Nichols on Jan. 28, 2023, in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images)
A demonstrator attends a rally in Washington Square Park to protest the death of Tyre Nichols on Jan. 28, 2023, in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images)

The study also reveals few differences between Black Americans with college degrees and those without regarding distrust for U.S. institutions. However, their distrust differed in a few areas.

Black adults with college degrees were more likely to believe distrustful racial narratives tied to politics, economics, criminal justice, and media. Black adults who did attend college were more likely to believe conspiracy theories about Black men being removed from families and abortion and reproductive choice being used to limit Black populations.

This difference extended to Black Republicans — a finding that recently was embodied by U.S. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., who remarked that “during Jim Crow, the Black family was together.” While the study’s findings may not shock Black Americans who grew up hearing many stories from childhood, the data can be used to inform how institutions respond to calls to action to reform.

“Going back to our 2022 survey, Black Americans said that they were hopeful that they would see changes after the murder of George Floyd,” noted Cox. “But many, almost that exact same share, said that a year later, they had not seen any of those differences. Many Black Americans, the vast majority, are pessimistic about whether or not equality will ever be achieved.”

Dr. Cox notes that data from this June Pew Research study and previous studies she commissioned reveal many Black Americans have a vision for a country that treats them fairly — but with certain fundamental changes: “That clear vision is to rebuild institutions to ensure fair treatment and [that] the rebuild is necessary because of these beliefs that the fair treatment isn’t coincidental. It’s baked in.”

Editor’s Note, June 12, 2024, 9:03pm: The Pew Research Center issued the following note to clarify their use of the term “racial conspiracy theory” in their report, saying that their report is under revision:

Natasha S. Alford is VP of Digital Content and a Senior Correspondent at theGrio. An award-winning journalist, filmmaker, and TV personality, Alford is the author of the book “American Negra: A Memoir” (Harper Collins). Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @natashasalford.

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