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Study: The More Whites Are Told Criminal Justice System Unfair to Blacks, the More They Like It

black-man-prisonCriminal justice reformers from Attorney General Eric Holder on down have given considerable focus to the institutional racism of the U.S. criminal justice system, but a new study suggests that the more whites are told the system is racist and unfair to Black people, the more they like it. 

The study by researchers from Stanford University, published in Psychological Science, found that even when whites believe current sentencing laws are too harsh, they’re less likely to support changing them if they’re reminded that the current U.S. prison population is disproportionately Black.

Nationally, African-Americans constitute only 12 percent of America’s overall population, but represent 40 percent of the nation’s prisoners.

Researchers Rebecca Hetey and Jennifer Eberhardt of Stanford devised two clever experiments to test their thesis on criminal justice reform, according to a story in Vox.comFirst they asked white commuters in San Francisco to watch a short video that included mugshots of prisoners. The survey occurred in 2012, when California was considering changes to its “three-strikes” law. A white female researcher chose 62 white commuters to watch the videos.
According to Vox, there were two different versions of the video: in one version, the number of Black inmates shown was equal to the representation of Blacks in the total prison population, 25 percent, while in the other video the number of Blacks reflected the population imprisoned under the three-strikes law, 45 percent.

After agreeing that the three-strikes law was too harsh, the commuters had a curious response—if they had seen a video with more Black inmates, they were less likely to agree to sign a petition to change the law. With the group that saw a video featuring 25 percent Black inmates, more than half signed the petition. With the second group, only a quarter signed the petition.

“The Blacker the prison population, the less willing registered voters were to take steps to reduce the severity of a law they acknowledged to be overly harsh,” the researchers wrote.

The second experiment was conducted in New York City, involving the controversial stop-and-frisk policy that was ultimately ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge. One group of white New Yorkers was told the city’s prison population was 40 percent Black, while another group was told it was 60 percent Black. After both groups agreed that stop-and-frisk was punitive, the group that had been told the population was 60 percent Black was substantially less likely (12 percent versus 33 percent) to want to sign a petition to end stop-and-frisk.

In addition, in both experiments when participants were later asked to recall the percentage of Blacks in the prison population, they remembered the number as much higher than it was—even the New Yorkers who were told Blacks made up 60 percent of the prison population inflated the number higher. 

The results suggest that whites intrinsically associated prison with Black people and automatically conflated prison, Blackness, and crime. This was illustrated by another finding—New Yorkers who were told that 60 percent of the prison population was Black were more likely to say that they were worried about crime in their neighborhoods if stop-and-frisk were repealed. 

“Not only are Blacks strongly associated with violent crime, but also the more stereotypically Black a person’s physical features are perceived to be, the more that person is perceived as criminal,” the researcher wrote. “Even in death-penalty cases, the perceived Blackness of a defendant is related to sentencing: the more Black, the more deathworthy.”

Vox mentions a 2007 study showing that whites “actually become more supportive of the death penalty upon learning that it discriminates against Blacks.”

The researchers suggest that those criminal justice reformers who actually want to make some headway with white Americans should stress the cost effectiveness of reducing the prison population, rather than focusing on the racism and unfairness of the system.

“Many legal advocates and social activists seem to assume that bombarding the public with images, statistics and other evidence of racial disparities will motivate people to join the cause and fight inequality,” Hetey told Stanford Report. “But we found that, ironically, exposure to extreme racial disparities may make the public less, and not more, responsive to attempts to lessen the severity of policies that help maintain those disparities.”

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