USC research finds South Carolinians split on state of race relations a year after Charleston shootings

June 17 marked the one-year anniversary of the shooting of nine churchgoers attending Wednesday bible study at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston. Since that time, South Carolina has seen the removal of the Confederate flag from statehouse grounds, a continued conversation on gun violence and a call for healing from the families of the victims.

Hundreds gather to honor the Charleston Nine and call for the removal of the Confederate flag from Statehouse Grounds in July 2015. (Photo by Kelly Petty)

Hundreds gather to honor the Emmanuel Nine and call for the removal of the Confederate flag from Statehouse Grounds in July 2015. (File hoto by Kelly Petty)

But for a team of researchers at the University of South Carolina, the question remains of whether race relations in the state have improved since last summer.

Robert Oldendick, executive director of the Institute for Public Service and Policy Research, and fellow lead researcher Monique Lyle surveyed about 800 South Carolinians of all backgrounds about the Charleston shooting, policing and race relations.

Of all respondents, 56.6 percent said they felt extremely sad about the shootings, while 30 percent said they felt extremely angry. More than half of individuals surveyed, 55.3 percent, said they thought the accused shooter, Dylann Roof, should receive the death penalty. Nearly 39 percent said they thought he should be sentenced to life without parole.

Oldendick said the results of the survey showed that people did not draw a universal consensus as to whether the shooting led to positive or negative outcomes. Many said they thought the incident brought people together and that they were proud of the way state legislators responded, he said. But others who responded to the survey said they thought the shooting made the state look bad and highlighted racial divisions in South Carolina.

Still, others said the shooting brought about immediate reaction, but no follow-up.

“It really was kind of split,” Oldendick said.

But many of the results of the survey reflected current trends about how African-Americans and whites view public safety and the police.

While 81 percent of individuals surveyed said they thought it was the right decision to charge Charleston police officer Michael Slager with murder in the death of Walter Scott in April of last year, African-Americans reported feeling less safe than whites with law enforcement officers in their communities.

About 61 percent of blacks said they felt mostly safe with law enforcement compared with a little more than 85 percent of whites. Similarly, more than two-thirds of African-Americans surveyed said they think police are too quick to use deadly force, whereas only 22.5 percent of whites surveyed thought the same.

When asked whether police are more likely to use deadly force against a black person than a white person, the percentage of those who agreed jumped to more than 83 percent among black respondents.

And the question on the state race relations in South Carolina also brought about differing opinions. African-Americans were much more inclined than whites to rate race relations in the state as poor, with 31.7 percent of black respondents rating relations as poor compared with 10.2 percent of white respondents.

On the other hand, nearly half of the white respondents, 48.9 percent said race relations in the state were good. That compares with 24.4 percent of black respondents.

“Racial attitudes questions pretty much broke along lines of what was expected,” Oldendick said.

A crowd of more than 1,000 called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the State house grounds (photo by Allen Wallace).

A crowd of more than 1,000 called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the State house grounds last July. (File photo by Allen Wallace)

Yet, 98.8 percent of respondents agreed it is a good idea for South Carolina police officers to use body cameras. About 97 percent also said it was good for interactions between individuals and police to be recorded.

“People are using their cell phone technology that might help in situations with visual evidence,” Oldendick said. “People almost universally agree that we have this technology and we can learn more from it, so why not use it.”

Oldendick and Lyle’s study suggests there is little hope and optimism for the future of race relations in South Carolina out of the tragedy of the Charleston shootings. Perceptions of racial issues were mostly split despite a positive consensus in regards to overarching ideas about policing methods.

Researchers discovered that the Charleston shootings and the Walter Scott case are just two examples that lead many African-Americans to think race relations will always be a problem in South Carolina.

The researchers concluded, “…these results offer a modicum of hope and optimism for the future of race relations in our state. Yet they also signify our state’s abiding connection with its past. Despite the more than 150 years since their utterance, it is as if the words of venerated South Carolina Statesman John C. Calhoun were prescient and remain relevant: ‘The two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black.’ ”

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