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Study: Whites less likely to support criminal justice reforms that benefit blacks

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Racial disparities in the criminal justice system are well-known today: African Americans comprise 12 percent of the country’s total population, but account for 40 percent of its prisoners — about one million of the 2.3 million behind bars today. One in every three black men will go to prison at some point in his lifetime.

And as legal scholar Michelle Alexander has written, there are now more African Americans under correctional control — in prison or jail, or on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850.

But how does this information influence public opinion about the criminal justice system? New research out of Stanford University in California shows that yes, its impact is huge — but not in the way one might expect. According to a study released earlier this month, when whites are shown evidence of racial disparities, their support for punitive policies, such as California’s three strikes law and New York’s stop and frisk, goes up.

“A lot of people assume that if the public is shown evidence of racial inequality, that alone is enough to motivate the public to want to change the status quo,” says Rebecca C. Hetey, one of the authors of the report. “Our results show that ironically, the evidence of racial disparities in incarceration is not enough, and that it might backfire — people might double-down and become more accepting of policies that contribute to racial disparities in the first place.”

Hetey and her co-author, Jennifer L. Eberhardt, both Stanford psychologists, conducted two studies to test the impact of racial disparities on the white public’s support for certain policies. In the first, which took place in San Francisco, white participants were shown a series of real mug shots of black and white inmates — but unbeknownst to them, the racial makeup of the photographs was manipulated so that some saw only 25 percent black faces, while others saw 45 percent.

Participants were then asked to evaluate how punitive they thought the state’s three strikes policy was, and were given the option to sign a petition to amend the law to make it less harsh. Even though all the participants on average said the three strikes law was too punitive, the group that was shown more images of black inmates was much less likely to sign the petition to reform the law as the group that saw fewer black inmates.

Similarly, in their second study, conducted in New York City, white participants were shown statistics about the racial makeup of the prison population — some were told it was 40 percent black, and others, 60 percent — and then asked to evaluate the police department’s stop and frisk tactics and whether they wanted to sign a petition to end the policy. Again, those who were told that the proportion of black inmates was higher were far less likely to endorse the petition.

“The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration, and as a country, we incarcerate more people than any other country on earth,” says Hetey. “The focus is usually on how this incarceration boom affects those behind bars, but we wanted to start to make the case that the incarceration boom affects us all. We found that simply being an observer of the complexion of the prison system—and by that I mean how many blacks are in prison — can change the public’s taste for the level of punishment that they think is acceptable.”

“It’s important for the public to know that prison isn’t just something that affects those behind bars,” she goes on. “It can affect how we think the criminal justice system should work.”

Hetey and Eberhardt’s work builds upon years of research into racial bias in the criminal justice system. A similar study, published in 2011, shows that white support for the death penalty significantly increases when whites are told that African Americans are disproportionately executed. “That’s pretty shocking,” says Jon Hurwitz, co-author of the study. “Essentially all you have to do is remind people that things like the death penalty are racially discriminatory and it makes them even more approving of them.”

Eberhardt also published a study in 2006 that shows that in capital cases with a white victim, African American defendants who have “stereotypically black” physical features are twice as likely to receive a death sentence than those who don’t.

“We’re finding pretty conclusive evidence that people do have these sorts of stereotypes,” says Hurwitz, professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh. “The thing that’s particularly disturbing to us is that when whites think about crime, they almost always think about African Americans, and when they think about African Americans, they almost always think about crime.”

Hetey, who is sure to point out that her research isn’t about targeting whites — they focused on this group for “methodological” reasons, since it represents the biggest portion of the American population — says that many people concluded from her research that the answer is to avoid talking about race. “I don’t think the take-home message of this work is that we should never talk about race or that we should never present statistics on racial inequality,” she says. “Maybe the answer is that we need more statistics that draw attention to the process and the workings of the criminal justice system.”

Carlton Williams, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, agrees, saying activists shouldn’t ignore race to avoid the white response described in Hetey and Eberhardt’s work. “If we’re going to talk about the problems in the criminal justice system, we must talk about race,” he says. “We have to talk about the fact that the criminal justice system is beginning to look like a system of racial control.”

“Racial inequality is a very serious matter in our society and I don’t think ignoring it or not bringing it up is the answer,” adds Hetey. “This is the beginning of the dialogue, not the end.”