Can Racial Inequality Awareness Increase Discriminatory Feelings?

African-American man in prison cellThe United States has the highest prison population in the world, and African-Americans make up 40% of the prison population, though they account for only 12% of the U.S. population. Racial discrimination and sentencing disparities play a significant role in these numbers. One study, for example, found that African-Americans receive sentences that are 20% longer than those whites receive for the same crimes. According to a new study, though, people who learn that people of color are disproportionately represented among the prison population may actually develop more racist attitudes.

Can Knowledge of Racial Disparities Cause Racism?

To learn how knowledge of racial disparities affected whites’ attitudes toward African-Americans, researchers exposed whites to information about racial disparities. In one trial, for example, 62 whites watched a video showing mugshots of inmates. In some versions of the video, 25% of the mugshots depicted black inmates, while in other versions, 45% were black.

After watching the video, whites were then asked if they wanted to sign a petition designed to reduce the severity of California’s three strikes law—a law widely blamed for contributing to disproportionate representation of people of color in the prison population. Half of the participants who saw the video with fewer black people signed the petition, but only 27% signed when they saw the video with more black mugshots.

The researchers wanted to evaluate whether fear of crime could help explain these results, so they performed a second experiment during which they gave participants statistics about the prison population. One group learned that blacks constitute 40% of the national prison population, while the other group learned that New York’s black inmate population is 60%. Many social scientists believe that New York’s “stop and frisk” policy has led to this racial disparity. After hearing the statistics, participants were asked whether they support stop and frisk. Thirty-three percent of people exposed to the lower statistic about black inmates nationwide opposed stop and frisk, but only 12% of people who saw the higher statistic about New York opposed the law.

The study’s authors believe that when people see crime in racial terms, they’re more likely to support punitive legal policies. Ultimately, awareness of racial disparities may not change people’s attitudes toward crime or race, and unfortunately, people who are bombarded with statistics about racial disparities may actually believe that the racial disparities are due to real differences in the rate at which people commit crimes.


  1. Palazzolo, J. (2013, February 14). Racial gap in men’s sentencing. Retrieved from
  2. Seeing more blacks in prison increases support for policies that exacerbate racial inequality. (2014, August 6). Retrieved from

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  • Krissy

    August 28th, 2014 at 10:34 AM

    The ony reason that I think that this happens is that you then have people who would have this tendency to believe racist things to begin with find out that they are receiving information to corroborate what they already believed to be true.

  • hudson

    August 28th, 2014 at 1:41 PM

    Sorry but I only think that education can make things better, not worse. People will believe what they want to believe no matter what the numbers say. Without giving the cold hard facts there is little chance to change minds, but the only racial disparity that I see is that this demographic is over represented in the prison population and there seems to be no really good reasons as to why. I guess you might say that perhaps more of that population is committing crimes. Okay I can live with that, but I could also turn around and say that maybe they are being prosecuted more heavily than other demographics. That could be viewed as an equally valid argument.

  • Fletcher

    August 29th, 2014 at 1:08 PM

    I do not think that this would be a cause for racism at all.

    heraing someone make racist comments and being around others who are racist are the things that makes people believe things that are untrue, not learning the facts about what is and what is not.

  • Carter

    August 30th, 2014 at 2:06 PM

    hmmm never quite thought about it that way but I suppose that it could be a possibility

  • zane

    August 31st, 2014 at 7:59 AM

    My thoughts are that some people are idiots and some are not and that they are going to think what they want to think no matter what the evidence may or may not say to the otherwise. People will believe what they have been told or they will eventually come to some conclusions on their own and in their own time but nothing that I say is going to change what they feel deep inside. There are some things that have just become so engrained in them that I could talk until I was blue in the face and it still would not change their minds unless they were at a place where they were ready to see those changes.

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