The 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.
- Palazzolo, J. (2013, February 14). Racial gap in men’s sentencing. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324432004578304463789858002
- Seeing more blacks in prison increases support for policies that exacerbate racial inequality. (2014, August 6). Retrieved from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/racial-disparities-incarceration.html
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