Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Is Defunding the Police a “Luxury Belief”?Analyzing White vs. Nonwhite Democrats’ Attitudes on Depolicing

Zach GoldbergSeptember 8, 2022

Policing & Public SafetyAll

Executive Summary

After the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, a surprising number of Democrats embraced calls to “defund” the police. According to data from the 2020 Cooperative Election Survey, 35.4% of Democrats expressed support for reducing spending on law enforcement.

Even as violent crime surged across the country, many Democrats remained supportive of defunding, which was supposedly necessary to achieve racial justice and equity. But support for defunding and depolicing is actually higher among white (and Asian) Democrats than among black and Hispanic Democrats. Relatively stronger support among the former, more affluent groups has led some to suggest that these attitudes are “luxury beliefs” that the privileged can afford to adopt to signal their virtue because they do not have to suffer the consequences. The luxury beliefs thesis thus suggests that socioeconomic status (SES) drives support for depolicing. But it is also possible that a genuine moral-political ideology, not affluence, plays an important role. This report is an attempt to empirically test the luxury beliefs hypothesis. It ultimately finds support for both the SES and ideology-centered accounts.

Section 1 shows that support for defunding and depolicing policies is indeed greater among white and Asian Democrats than black and Hispanic Democrats. Ideological self-identification, however, is found to be a stronger predictor of support than household income and education.

Section 2 examines levels of support when socioeconomic and demographic variables are held constant. Doing so nearly eliminates the difference in levels of support between Asian vs. black and Hispanic Democrats. The gap in support between these groups and white Democrats, on the other hand, is moderated but not eliminated. The results further indicate that ideology is a much more important driver of the white vs. nonwhite support gap than all socioeconomic and demographic variables combined.

Section 3 finds that in areas with high levels of violent crime, support for defunding the police generally falls for all groups except white Democrats. This is true even when socioeconomic, demographic, and political background variables are held constant.

Section 4 examines whether local racial residential segregation—which may insulate white Democrats from crime in neighboring, heavily minority communities—explains the likelihood of supporting these policies. The data demonstrate little to no evidence for this theory.

Section 5 argues that white Democrats’ policing attitudes are subject to unique group-based moral pressures, including collective moral shame and guilt. I examine the effects of an index of racial liberalism—which is found to highly overlap with measures of white moral shame and guilt in past research—on support for defunding and depolicing as local violent-crime levels increase. Holding all other variables constant, as local violent-crime levels increase, the positive effects of racial liberalism on support for defunding and depolicing become stronger for white Democrats and weaker for nonwhite Democrats. The effects for white Democrats are generally significantly larger than those for nonwhite Democrats.

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