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A quarter of U.S. adults fear being attacked in their neighborhood, a poll finds

A person walks down a street in Philadelphia, Pa.
Spencer Platt
/
Getty Images
A person walks down a street in Philadelphia, Pa.

A quarter of American adults say they live in fear of being attacked in their own neighborhoods, according to a poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The poll, conducted between June and July of this year and including a sample of 4,192 adults, found that Americans of color were more likely than white Americans to say they feared being threatened or physically attacked.

The poll found that a quarter of Black respondents, 26% of Latinos, 36% of Native Americans, 21% of Asian adults, and 19% of white adults say they have feared someone might threaten them harm in their own neighborhoods.

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NPR interviewed several poll respondents about their individual reasons for feeling unsafe in their communities. Their answers ranged from looming threats of violent racism to fears of societal collapse due to politics.

Read more below:

He experienced overt racism in his youth and now fears for younger relatives

Paul Ongtooguk, an Alaskan Inuit man living in Anchorage, has lived with this kind of fear for most of his life.

"Growing up, we went through the era when it was just open racism about being Alaskan Native," he says.

Outside of Alaska, Ongtooguk says that people are less familiar with the appearance of Alaskan Natives, often leading to strangers making crude and offensive stereotypes about his race.

"This one was really weird. I was in Philadelphia, somebody asked me if I was an octoroon," Ongtooguk said, referencing an offensive, outdated term for a person of 1/8th Black ancestry. "I had to look it up."

At 65 years old, Ongtooguk says he thinks he has aged out of much of the overt racism that occurred in his youth, but he still fears for younger family members.

Thousands of miles southeast in a small Texas town, 64-year-old Annette Jackson says her experience with violent racism has only worsened in recent years.

A white man approached her in Walmart after the 2016 election and spat in her face

Following Donald Trump's 2016 White House victory, Jackson, who is of mixed race but presents as a woman of color, says she was assaulted by a white man while working her job at a Walmart deli counter.

"He said 'Trump won,' and then he spit in my face," she says.

Jackson says she reported the incident to management, but no further action was taken.

"It's like Trump won so they had a right to treat me in a kind of way."

Jackson's example, while extreme, is not unusual.

Last year, the FBI said that 2020 had seen the largest number of reported hate crimes since 2008. Attacks against Black and Asian Americans saw the most significant increases in that period.

Jackson claims Black, white, Hispanic and Native American ancestry, and says she presents as a woman of color.

"I don't feel safe at all," she says. "I would hesitate to call the police in fear they'd shoot me instead of the person I'm calling the police on. There are people that ride around with the Confederate flags hanging out the back of their trucks. And, you know, I don't feel safe. I don't feel safe in America."

Some attributed their fear to other powerful voices

Not everyone polled shared the same ideas on the root of violent crime.

Bernardo Medina, 71, is a Puerto Rican born American living in New Jersey.

He says he feared most for national security and blamed Democrats in power for "emboldening" enemies of the United States.

"The Democrats sold out this country's national security long ago," he says. "Starting with the Clintons. Later, the Obamas. And now the Bidens became rich by selling out this country. Plain and simple. The criminals are in power and the good people have to live in fear."

He also blamed the Black Lives Matter movement and 2020 protests against police brutality for degrading social discourse.

Those protests were overwhelmingly peaceful and sought to bring attention to state-sanctioned racist violence against Black people.

"They deceived a lot of people with their nice talk and then took the money," he says of Black Lives Matter national leadership, which has come under fire in recent months over accusations of financial impropriety. "It's all a hoax. It's all a game."

The unraveling of the nation's social fabric was a common theme among respondents.

"I hope to never have to use my gun, but we've gone to gun safety classes in case we ever had to"

Ernesto, a Black 37-year-old resident of a Philadelphia suburb, says social unrest was behind most of his fears for himself and his family. He declined to provide his last name.

"I feel like people aren't understanding of different points of view anymore," he says. "You never know where you'll go, where you will no longer be welcome because of your point of view. People have preconceptions and prejudices that they amplify now. And I don't know if it's because we hear about it more through social media or if it's actually the case."

"I never felt discriminated against," he says. "I knew it existed, but I never felt it directly against me. Whereas now I'm afraid that I will be because you hear about it so much more and so often. So, yeah, I'm totally afraid of traveling the country. I don't want to go somewhere and end up in a place that I didn't realize would be unwelcoming to someone like me."

Also compounding Ernesto's concerns is the looming threat of gun violence, which he says keeps him from traveling into the city any more than is necessary.

And since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, he says that he and his wife have begun stockpiling supplies in the event that something catastrophic happens. He says he doesn't trust the government to be able to care for his family in times of crisis.

"We have food supplies, we have generators, we have our evacuation plan so that I feel like I don't need to wait for the government to give me instructions or assistance to take care of myself," he says. "I hope to never have to use my gun, but we've gone to gun safety classes in case we ever had to. And we know that there might be a time when we have to."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.