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Mass. residents view racism as systemic and support sweeping police reforms, new poll shows

Protests such as this one in Porter Square in Cambridge last weekend have been constant across Massachusetts and have drawn all races.
Protests such as this one in Porter Square in Cambridge last weekend have been constant across Massachusetts and have drawn all races.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The vast majority of Massachusetts residents see racism as a systemic problem, believe police treat Black people differently than everyone else, and support sweeping changes to policing, a new poll found.

In the wake of hundreds of protests decrying racism and police brutality across Massachusetts, a strong majority of residents in every age group, race, and region said they back the Black Lives Matter movement, according to the Suffolk University survey for WGBH News, The Boston Globe, MassLive, and the State House News Service.

At a moment when polling finds record high numbers of Americans believe racism is a major problem, embedded in the national fabric, the Massachusetts data suggest an even stronger majority here feels that way, including a larger proportion of white people.

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One poll of American adults this month found roughly 60 percent of white people support the Black Lives Matter movement. In the Suffolk/WGBH News/Globe survey, that number was 84 percent.

Black respondents were most definitive in backing the movement and ranking racism as the most serious issue facing the state.

“This is something we’ve been dealing with our whole lives, but it’s being brought to the light,” said Marissa Monteiro, a 40-year-old Brockton resident who identifies as African American.

A Massachusetts native, she spoke of experiencing racism firsthand — including being called a racial slur — and said she was taught growing up not to stray too far from Brockton, for fear of encountering racism in surrounding towns.

”I think Massachusetts is moving in the right direction, but we still have a lot of work to do,” Monteiro said.

On the other dominant issue of the day, people in Massachusetts reported feeling somewhat less concerned about the effects of the coronavirus pandemic even as it continues to ravage parts of the country. Out of a list of challenges facing the residents, just 21 percent said physical and mental health issues related to coronavirus were the most serious problem, while close to 30 percent named racism.

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Slightly more than one-third of those surveyed said the pandemic has diminished their regular income, down from a high of nearly 46 percent in a poll early last month. And fewer people — less than half of those surveyed — said they were at least “somewhat concerned” about their personal financial situation or employment, a notable drop from the nearly two-thirds who felt that way in late March, when infections were starting to spike.

This subdued sense of economic peril comes even as unemployment levels remain staggeringly high and could worsen again if Congress decides to scale back federal economic stimulus this summer. Those on the lower end of the income scale are feeling more economic insecurity.

David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, which conducted the survey, said the change indicates that gradual reopening of the state economy as well as the economic support provided by Congress have lessened the financial pain felt by many.

The poll also revealed a stark contrast in how Massachusetts residents view their state compared to the rest of the country.

Roughly seven in 10 said the state is heading in the right direction, while the same share said the United States is on the wrong track, according to the survey of 500 Massachusetts residents by landline and cellphone, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

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In followup interviews with some of those polled from June 18-21, many people pointed to President Trump as among the reasons for their sour view. “He’s an evil, malevolent ignoramus who’s dangerous and needs to go as soon as possible,” said Wendy Hubbard, 64, of Maynard.

On matters of race, the emerging consensus about how pervasive racism is and the need for policing reform obscure a great deal of nuance, and even disagreement, that still exists in Massachusetts, a state with a fraught racial history.

Young people are especially unequivocal about racism being a problem. Around 60 percent of 18-24 year olds and 25-34 year olds say police in their own cities and towns treat Black people differently, compared to 40 percent of people 55 years and older.

Less than one-tenth of those younger residents said racism was never a problem or is no longer a problem here.

Some divisions break down along racial lines. While more than three-quarters of white respondents said police generally do not treat Black people the same as everyone else, notably fewer — 48 percent — said the same of their local police departments. Black respondents, meanwhile, saw bias in local departments, with 70 percent saying their local police treat Black people differently than others. Still, Black respondents were less critical of local police than police more generally.

The data suggest a similar pattern applies to beliefs about police funding.

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Half of all respondents said that police budgets should be reduced, with money transferred to social services. But when asked whether they would apply that principle to their local departments, just 45 percent of white respondents, 38 percent of Hispanic respondents, and 20 percent of Asian respondents supported such cuts.

On the other hand, 52 percent of Black respondents said police budgets generally should be reduced, and 57 percent said their local police budgets should be reduced.

To be sure, some residents do not see racism as a widespread problem, nor do they believe police treat Black people differently, nor that their budgets should be cut, though the poll showed this viewpoint is a distinct minority within the state’s diverse population of 7 million.

The data hint at very different lived experiences, even among people who are ideologically aligned.

”For a Black person in the United States, our level of anxiety is extremely high,” said Mark Warner, a 48-year-old Dorchester resident who was born in Trinidad and Tobago. Warner said that anxiety began long before George Floyd’s killing and the subsequent protests. He recalls fearing in the 2010s for his son, then a teenager and straight-A student.

Warner said it was common at the time to see Boston police stopping Black men and boys in his neighborhood. He took his concerns to the police. “I’m fearful of how the police interact with young people in my neighborhood,” Warner recalled telling an officer he knew.

That officer, William Gross, went on to become commissioner of the Boston Police Department.

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“There has been change under William Gross. … A lot of the policing in the Black community and in my community has changed. I wish that throughout the United States they could have change like that,” Warner said. “The truth of it is, I have a lot of friends who are Boston police officers. … Yes, we do have problems in our police force. But for the most part, they are going in the right direction.”

Even so, Warner said he supports transferring some police funding to social services and eliminating military-grade guns and vehicles from police arsenals. ”I do not believe police should have military-type vehicles and military-type weapons that cost hundreds of millions of dollars. I think it’s wasteful and unnecessary,” Warner said. “We are citizens of the United States, not terrorists.”

The survey shows residents particularly unified on prohibiting certain police equipment. Majorities supported banning tear gas, rubber bullets, and military-style vehicles.Banning chokeholds was the most popular reform surveyed, with 88 percent of respondents in favor.

Large majorities also backed doing more to hold police accountable by making it easier to sue individual officers for wrongdoing and creating a license for policing that could be revoked for misconduct.

While changing policy surrounding chokeholds and police licensing falls within the state’s power, removing some limitations on civil suits against police officers would require action at the federal level.

White residents also pointed to personal experiences when discussing their view that systemic racism is a problem. Sarah Ratta, 47, of Avon, grew up in Jamaica Plain and was in school during the contentious era after Boston, under court order to desegregate its schools, started a major busing system to make integration real.

She recalled noticing how many fewer students of color were in the exam school she attended, as opposed to elementary and middle school. “These things all kind of color my memory,” she said.

Rob Londergan, 74, a white Brookline resident, also said he’s seen police discriminate against Black people firsthand, including when he himself reported a crime and a police officer tried to convince him that a particular Black man matched his description of the culprit based just on the color of his skin.

While he agrees that portions of police budgets should be reallocated to social services, he doesn’t agree with everything racial justice advocates are fighting for.

“We need to do a better job of teaching our younger Black people that education is the key to their problems,” said the retired optician. “It’s not slavery, that’s in the past. You can’t live your life looking in the past . . . and unfortunately a lot of the Black protesters are looking at the past.”

For Black residents, other, insidious forms of racism remain very much in the present.

“My anxiety is at an all-time high,” said Monteiro who also said she cried while discussing questions of racism with pollsters. She said she has experienced and feared discrimination — in her work as a real estate agent, as a parent of two Black children attending predominantly white schools — her whole life.

She said she is proud of the protesters, including her 20-year-old daughter, for trying to change that present-day reality. “As much as I have anxiety, it does make me feel hopeful,” she said.

For Warner, the visible racial diversity among the protesters is a cause for hope.

“You’re seeing every race out there,” he said. “And until justice, there are going to be protests and it’s not going to stop because we deserve equal rights.”

Bianca Vázquez Toness of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac. Dasia Moore can be reached at dasia.moore@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @daijmoore.