The past year has upended life in America and around the world. Due to the pandemic, we have been asked to rethink how we do things and adapt to new rules and technologies. At the same time, we have been forced to confront deep issues of inequality in our justice system fueled by the deaths of people of color at the hands of law enforcement.

How have these events impacted the American public’s perceptions? To find out, the American Bar Association commissioned a national survey that asked the public about aspects of racial justice, COVID-19 restrictions, and civic knowledge basics for the 2021 ABA Survey of Civic Literacy. The full survey can be viewed at The survey is being released in recognition of Law Day, which is held each May 1 to celebrate the rule of law.

The survey reveals strong opinions on what our government should require people and businesses to do as we attempt to emerge from COVID-19 lockdowns.

Most people are willing to accept less-intrusive restrictions such as masks, but most do not believe that getting a COVID-19 vaccine should be mandatory for the workplace. According to the survey, conducted March 11-17, only 34 percent of U.S. residents believed that employers should be legally permitted to require that their employees get vaccinated for COVID-19.

But an overwhelming 78 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that employers should be legally permitted to require that their employees wear face masks while working on-site, and 79 percent supported giving businesses legal authority to refuse service to a customer who is not following face mask requirements.

The survey also examined the public’s views on aspects of racial justice. Following a year marked by high-profile deaths of people of color at the hands of police and mass protests in cities across the country, the survey results demonstrate wide differences in the public’s trust of the U.S. justice system based on race and age.

Some of the survey findings revealed that:

Black and Hispanic people showed the greatest skepticism about the justice system. While slightly more than half (52 percent) of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “The justice system has racial biases built into its rules, procedures, and practices,” 80 percent of Black people and 63 percent of Hispanic people agreed or strongly agreed with the statement. Just 45 percent of White people did.

Age was a significant factor in how people perceived racial biases in the justice system: More than two-thirds (67 percent) of people aged 18-34 agreed or strongly agreed that there is racial bias in the justice system, but just one-third (34 percent) of people 65 and older did.

Respondents were also asked what was the first thing they thought of when they heard the phrase “Defund the police.” Half (50 percent) first thought of “redirect funding from the police department to essential social services,” 17 percent thought of “strip police of all funding” and 14 percent answered that it meant “abolish the police force.”

Racial disparities also emerged in the answers to this question. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of Black respondents first thought of redirecting funds from police to essential social services, compared to less than half (47  percent) of White respondents. And only 10 percent of Black people first thought it meant stripping police of all funding, almost one-half of the percentage (19 percent) of White people.

While troubling, these results are not surprising. The ABA, as the country’s largest association of lawyers, understands that it is our collective responsibility as lawyers to not only fix these issues of inequality but also to ensure that all people — rich or poor, Black, White, or Brown — view the justice system as fair.

Our country, as this survey uncovers, has deeply divided opinions about our justice system driven by age and race. These divisions are not new, and progress has been made. But the inequities and the negative perceptions that still exist cannot be ignored. The ABA is committed to examining and then fixing the justice system so that all people believe it works for them and not against them. The rule of law, on which our society relies, requires that laws must be applied and enforced fairly and without bias.


Patricia Lee Refo is president of the American Bar Association. She wrote this for