Exploring white attitudes on African-Americans in prisons

The whole topic of racial attitudes around incarnation is very fraught — and also very complicated, as entire bodies of research are penned on it across people’s careers. I can’t begin to scratch the surface. I do know this, as does seemingly everyone: African-Americans are 12 percent of the U.S. population, but represent 40 percent of those incarcerated. That flat-out seems wrong (is wrong). Again, it’s a very complex issue, but it seems to be a never-ending circle as well, per this new research from Stanford University (paper link here):

Although African-Americans constitute only 12 percent of America’s population, they represent 40 percent of the nation’s prison inmates.

But informing the white public of this disproportionate incarceration rate may actually bolster support for the very policies that perpetuate the inequality, according to a study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Stanford psychology researchers Rebecca Hetey and Jennifer Eberhardt found that when white people were told about these racial disparities, they reported being more afraid of crime and more likely to support the kinds of punitive policies that exacerbate the racial disparities.

So … let’s get this straight.

If you try and use really imbalanced stats (the 12-40 split above) to inform white people about how imbalanced it is, instead you scare them — and they want black people (or any violent offenders, I guess) to go away even more.

Phrased another way:

“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 said. “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.”

So … you can’t fight racial disparity with information, because information can lead to more fear. What options do you still have, then?

There’s an additional context here that’s relevant; you can make the argument that one of the big problems with reforming the criminal justice system — which is also a problem with reforming anything else, really — is that so many different people have so many different approaches to what needs to be done, as summarized by Vox:

As depressing as it is that telling white people about structural racism makes them support the structure more, what makes this study particularly interesting is that the criminal-justice reform movement isn’t just made up of people concerned about racism. Some fiscal conservatives want to reform the system to spend less money on prisons; some cultural conservatives are motivated by Christian notions of mercy and forgiveness. And some of the states that have most successfully worked to reform their prison policies are red states.

I do think it’s a little depressing that we’ve gotten to a place in American history where it’s nearly impossible to use actual information to solve problems (this goes into some of the issues around Big Data truly being a revolution). I wonder why that is often. Some theories:

  • We’re too partisan (people listen to what they like/understand)
  • Our attention spans are completely shot (we can only focus on one thing for so long)
  • We’re all so busy with our own stuff that it’s hard to really stop and think about these broader, bigger issues
  • We assume we’ll never have connection to/with inmates in our own life, so this isn’t something we really need to consider
  • Everyone, at the end of the day, likes to prioritize their gut feeling/passion over actual information

I’m honestly not sure of the answer — but it is sad that if you present information about a major racial disparity in incarceration rates, rather than inspiring action against the inequality, it actually can make Caucasians support the inequality. Awkward.

That said, I guess if you went around the streets of a major city talking about CEO pay and how many weeks it takes the average worker to make what the CEO makes in an hour, I’m not sure suddenly everyone would line up and start trying to re-do the American corporate compensation system; rather, they’d probably get their lunch and go back to their own job, focusing on their own stuff. So maybe information isn’t the key — maybe it’s connecting around human stories and thinking about different ways to get people to listen to you.



Ted Bauer

One Comment

  1. I know a large number of whites who should be in prison but aren’t. why? because they can buy their way out. I also know a large number of whites who, though they struggle and remain law abiding, would be the first targeted if they made a simple error in judgment. why? again. Because of the money issue. It seems that, if you wish to get away with crimes, you must be in the upper 1%. Only these few can buy their way out of their crimes.

    Poverty breed’s temptations. Being society’s lowest of the low also breed’s temptation. People are always preaching equality for all, but there really isn’t any equality unless you have bought it and then, and only then, are you seen as anyone’s equal.

    Being from the poor side of town, I have seen this work. Rich man , or son of rich man, commits a crime, and they can buy a verdict. Poor man steals a loaf of bread, and he is sentenced to life with hard labor. Equality? What equality? I haven’t seen “equal justice” my whole life, and I lived through some pretty tame years compared to now. Those who are poor, like me, are told that there is equal opportunity. Yet, when we try to cash in on that equal opportunity, we are kicked back down in the dirt because either our credit isn’t good enough or we have “the wrong kind of credit.”

    When all is said and done, the only ones who can’t pay their way out of prison are the African Americans and the Po’ white trash that struggle every day just to make it. We can’t fight the system. We can’t buck the system. We can’t buy the system. So we pay the highest cost of all.

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