Survey: Michiganders think systemic racism is a problem, divided on defunding police

Nisa Khan
Detroit Free Press
Detroit Will Breathe protesters include Jae Bass, center left, Ethan Lucas, right, chant Black Live Matter as they stand on top of outdoor dinning fence of Calexico Detroit restaurant in downtown Detroit, Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020.

Michigan voters are divided on the Black Lives Matter protests. 

A poll commissioned by the Free Press and other media partners found that while 75% of those surveyed consider systemic racism a serious problem in society, just 48% approved of the Black Lives Matter movement and its efforts across the U.S. to bring attention to the issue of police brutality against people of color.

While that level of support was still greater than the 45% who disapproved of the movement, it was down slightly from the 50% level of approval BLM had with Michigan voters in a poll done in July, compared with 42% disapproval.

For subscribersLatest Mich. poll may be worrisome to Biden, Dems

That's not all the poll indicated in terms of the issue of race and the ongoing protests, some of which have resulted in violent clashes between protesters, police, and counter-protesters. The poll found:

  • A clear majority, 57%, was against the idea of defunding police, even after it was explained that such a move only meant diverting some funding to other aspects of policing, such as mental health or social services. Only 37% supported such an idea.
  • Voters were clearly split over who to blame for violence at protests across the nation, with 35% linking it to violent factions in BLM, 28% tying it to white supremacists supportive of President Donald Trump, and 5% blaming federal or local law enforcement. Seventeen percent said it was a combination of the three and 15% said they didn't know.
  • Twelve percent said their top-most concern headed into the 2020 election is controlling violence and crime in the cities, the third-highest listed, behind only concerns over reopening the economy and schools and protecting public health amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The poll, which was conducted for the Free Press by EPIC-MRA of Lansing, surveyed 600 likely voters between last Thursday and this Tuesday and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

More: Home window busted, tires slashed in possible hate crime against Black family

More: Michigan State Police's releases use-of-force, traffic stop data

Asked about the results, Detroit Police declined to speak on the survey, directing to past quotes and publications but the poll shows just how divisive among the wider community both the protests and ideas like defunding the police have become in an election year.

Detroit Will Breathe is one of the groups trying to address police brutality that disproportionately affects Black residents, aiming to address systemic problems. Its website displays some of its action items, including "defunding and demilitarizing" the police and ending facial recognition. Tristan Taylor, an organizer for the group, said Michigan is a "hyper-segregated" state, but that the protests have had a positive impact.

"Michigan certainly had these protests that have really been able to bring an integrated group of people together and cross those divides in a way that haven't been crossed in like 20 or 30 years, at least," Taylor said. "But still, it is a harder nut to crack because of how segregated it is."

The protests have helped lead to other potential advances, too.

In an effort to increase transparency, the Michigan State Police has recently published a new database that expands access to information such as department plans, training requirements, traffic stop data, and use-of-force data. It also created the Bridges to BLUE Citizen Advisory Council which makes up 10 citizens from differing communities. 

“By sharing information about the operations of the department, both online and with the Bridges to BLUE Citizen Advisory Council, it is my hope that we’ll increase police-community relations through better understanding, develop improved policies and contribute to more informed discussions about police reform,” State Police MSP Director Col. Joe Gasper said in a release. 

Despite the belief among many who responded to the poll that violent factions of BLM were to blame for protests getting out of control, according to Detroit community leaders and city officials in May, many suburbanites caused trouble at the city's protests. Unlike other cities, Detroit police said there was no evidence of agitators from outside Michigan being the problem. 

Taylor says he is not as concerned about infiltrating by alt-right groups or fascists but is worried about the lack of privacy afforded to the movement's supporters. 

"I am concerned about, as part of the general concern, of hyper-surveillance and over-policing," he said.  "FBI agents barging into the movement and not respecting people's privacy or the movement's right to privacy."

Detroit Police Chief James Craig has criticized Detroit Will Breathe, saying in August that the police have "been very patient". He called the protesters manipulative for ignoring the actions of other marchers throwing objects at the police.

"But one thing about a message: No matter how masterful you might be, when you're untruthful, it just doesn't go very far," Craig said then.

Respondents like Wayne County resident Joe Lenard, who is also part of the Wayne County Republican Committee, said he was proud of Craig's stance. 

"Yes, Black Lives Matter. Blue Lives Matter. It's not either or. I've got a yard sign on my lawn that says that. I fully believe that," Lenard said. "Nine times out of 10,  the shootings are justifiable and when they are not justifiable, I am more than willing to stand up and say that officer is a bad cop and needs to be prosecuted. And I am so proud of Chief Craig saying the same thing."

However, Andrea Williams, a respondent from Detroit, disagreed, saying the escalation during the protest was not from BLM members and that President Donald Trump was stroking fear. Williams added that she admired young BLM protesters, especially as a protester herself during the civil rights movements in the '60s.

"This killing of young African American men and women is outrageous," she said. "Nobody wants the police department to be abolished. But they are asking about using some of those funds that we use for police and use it in other ways that also impact crime. And I think that we should have more professional social workers and people that can calm down certain things."

Taylor noted that while some cities with larger populations of white residents like Seattle and Portland, Oregon, were able to cut police budgets or ban the use of facial recognition technology, but Detroit has been more resistant.

"It is not lost on me that those cities are majority white," he said. "Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon have really conservative towns around the major city. But the fact that Detroit is a majority-Black city, and I'm sure this is true of places like Baltimore ... they are just much more entrenched in defending and propagating this kind of 'tough on crime,' 'law and order' rhetoric."

He said many suburban areas are prime examples of places without large police budgets but instead, investment in schools and community resources. 

But such suburban areas can also be hostile to Black residents. Black Lives Matter members also have gone out to majority-white town Warren where a Black family had their home vandalized after putting up a BLM sign. 

For those who oppose Black Lives Matter's movement, Taylor makes a comparison to civil rights opposition seen in the Jim Crow South.

"The question really has to be whether or not we're prepared to live in a world that deals with inequality. And that will actually treat people as equal human beings," Taylor said. "Or whether or not we are a nation confined to forever condemning and instituting second-class citizenship to Black or brown people.

Nisa Khan is a data intern for the Detroit Free Press. Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @mnisakhan

Become a subscriber here.